Monday, August 15, 2022

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Billy Chiepe: the cartoonist at the heart of the newspaper

Billy Chiepe has been an outspoken cartoonist, first with the Botswana Guardian as a student at the University of Botswana in the mid 1980s. He has since contributed as a design and layout artist at Mmegi where he continues to contribute to the sister paper, The Monitor, on Mondays. He speaks to RAMPHOLO MOLEFHE about his career that spans over 25 years.

Cartoonists occupy a special space at the heart of the newspapers and the readership. Botswana readers were introduced to cartoons through the predecessor to The Soweton newspaper, then known as The World.
It was ‘black counterpart to The Rand Daily Mails, The Star, Sunday Times which were considered relatively more liberal than the conservative The Citizen.
The World carried the township character, Jojo, who competed for attention with the ‘white’ oriented cartoons, among them ‘The Katzenjammer Twins”.
Then there was the venerated Bob Connolly who did decades of work for The Rand Daily Mail and several of its predecessors.
He always stood at the bottom right hand corner of the page, astonished at some of the most dramatic developments in South Africa as the country trudged steadily, often painfully, towards the ‘non-racial, democratic, non-sexist” dispensation that the country proudly celebrates today.
Connolly commented on Harold MacMillan’s ‘Winds of change’ speech made in the 1960’s. And later on John Vorster’s failure to anticipate the imminent downfall of apartheid as he changed a pile of eye glasses but could not see the inevitability of change spelled out in a huge sign which said: “The writing is on the wall”.
Zapiro has since taken over as one of the premiere cartoonists in a much changed South Africa.
He is not much more senior to Dikeme ‘Billy’ Chiepe’ who functions in a somewhat more difficult editorial environment. Political comment is permitted but not as deeply protected in law or in the profession, which operates in the absence of a thoroughgoing trade union of journalists.
Sharing of ideas among peers is also difficult.

Chiepe boldly admits to the reality that commentary through cartoons “is not a popular profession and there is no money in it”.

He believes though those cartoons afford the artist the avenue to “say things that you might be too scared to say but it is easier when you draw. And, by the way, the best cartoons are the ones where the artist does not say much,” he comments.

He believes that the freedom of the cartoonist is limited by the size of the population.

“We tend to know all these powerful people, so it becomes difficult to comment freely.”
He makes the comparison that Zapiro “can avoid the subjects of his cartoons. Comment can kill you,” he warns.

He complains that government “does not see the opportunity in graphic design and a lot of people do not read”.

He points to the example of Che Guevara: “There are a lot of people who wear the portrait of Che but they cannot tell you much about the history of the Cuban revolution. People wear it even though they do not know what he was saying.”

The discussion shifts towards the technical aspects of cartoons.

“Cartoons are not illustrations. The illustrations generally do not make comment whilst the comics attempt to be funny almost wanting to always give a punch line at the end.

“With cartoons you have to make an effort to get out of the box and always see the bigger picture.

The implications of the events are what you are looking at…That is why the cartoonist has to be well read and informed. You must take an informed line.”

Chiepe also says that cartoons are also caricatures or interpretations of character.
“Mbeki and the pipe. Zapiro has Zuma and the shower. Cartoons are not portraits,” he emphasises.

“You often have to exaggerate features in order to draw the attention of the reader.”
He points to Simon Seisa as one who has contributed to the art of cartooning “using dramatic facial expressions”. (WordWorks)

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