JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP)- Don’t worry, Nelson Mandela can laugh at himself.
At least that’s the opinion of Jonathan Shapiro, South Africa’s leading political cartoonist for 20 years, whose work has not shied away from ridiculing the foibles of the anti-apartheid icon.
In Shapiro’s latest exhibit, the South African leader is shown as more famous than the British Queen, as an elderly statesman with greater stamina than an Olympic sprinter and as a saint, albeit with his halo slipping.
The exhibit opened Tuesday at Mandela’s Johannesburg offices as part of yearlong celebrations of the former South African president’s 90th birthday.
Much of the work lauds Mandela’s role as national liberator and reconciler of South Africa’s multicultural “rainbow nation.” There are cartoons of him bending over backward to meet the widow of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoed, regarded as the architect of apartheid.
There are also poignant drawings of Mandela’s farewell speech when he stepped down as South Africa’s first black president in 1999, and of his announcement of his son’s death from AIDS.
“Mandela embodies the greatest things that came out of the struggle (against apartheid) and since democracy,” Shapiro, who signs his work Zapiro, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “It is this spirit I have tried to tap into.”
But even Mandela has not been immune from Shapiro’s razor sharp drawings skewering politicians.
“It’s fantastic to have the opportunity as a cartoonist, as a satirist, to criticize an icon like Mandela and know that he understands that criticism,” Shapiro said, adding that Mandela and others have told him how much the statesman enjoys his work.
The exhibition contains cartoons lambasting Mandela for foreign policy missteps during his reign, most notably when he accepted an award from former Indonesian dictator Suharto.
The portrayal of Mandela as a saint with his halo askew was in response to his domestic policy gaffes, including calling for 14-year-olds to have the vote.
“He has said he is not a saint and I felt I had to be critical of him,” Shapiro said. “I owed it to myself and to him.”
After a stint in the South African army, Shapiro became politically active and used his art to promote Mandela’s then-banned African National Congress party and other anti-apartheid groups.
For his troubles, he was arrested and detained. While in jail, Shapiro did a drawing of what he thought Mandela looked like. Pictures of the imprisoned Mandela had been banned for decades and so few people saw him until he was released in 1990.
“I have been influenced and driven by him,” Shapiro said. “It has been a strange and wonderful relationship – mostly praising him and occasionally sniping at him from the sidelines.”
Today, Shapiro continues to ridicule a new breed of politicians. He is unrepentant in his depiction of ANC leader Jacob Zuma with a shower coming out of his head and is being sued by Zuma, the man likely to be the country’s next president. Zuma has said he took a shower as a preventive measure after having sex with an HIV-positive woman.
Cartoons in the exhibition also show Mandela chastising successor Thabo Mbeki for dragging his heels on HIV/AIDS issues and warning him against sowing seeds of division within the ruling party.
“Increasingly, he became the conscience of the nation,” Shapiro said.