The Case of Wellington Musapenda and freedom of expression

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A controversial cartoon by Wellington Musapenda resulted in much outrage. There were accusations against the cartoonist of being sexist and tribalistic. Published in The Chronicle newspaper of Zimbabwe – a regional paper for the Matebeleland province.

The initial reaction to the cartoon was that of condemnation and shock. But these reactions are largely hypocritical as much worse has been said and has not caused any outrage. Though it has caused some to be uncomfortable and some have been offended, it has sparked a debate. The cartoon could have been derived from these two articles  Mat’land, Midlands post worst school results and Midlands records steep rise in STIs

My first impression of the cartoon is that it was badly drawn. I have neither found the cartoons in both The Herald and The Chronicle engaging, provocative or humorous. Only reason this cartoon caught my attention was because there was outrage about it. I was not offended by it and also didn’t feel it was tribalistic.

The cartoon was published in a regional paper and focused on issues specific to that region. We want the cartoonist to include everything else from other regions? Unfortunately the people who have called for other areas to be included and men to be included as well resemble an issue we have had to constantly deal with in design. Whereby a client wants you to include everything the company does, on a logo. To show that its based in Mutare – include the mountains, a word that is in chiManyika so that people can relate. No, the logo does not have to tell the whole story. And neither does the cartoonist have to put everything in. By virtue of there being no men is not necessarily sexist.

The conversation that was ignited by this tweet made me decide to look further into this issue.

After going through the conversation and seeing some of the comments. I decided to broadcast a message to a number of my contacts inquiring about what their impressions were when they saw the cartoon. Also wanted their reactions to the suspension of the cartoonist.

Tribalism

It seems you cannot say anything negative about Matabeleland without being labelled a tribalist. When people talk about Matabeleland having more beautiful women than any other area in Zimbabwe nobody questions this. No one asks for facts or to accuse of sexism and tribalism. We just accept it as a fact. Why would it be tribalistic for a paper which covers that region of the country. Talking specifically about results in their area?

Musapenda was a victim of selective targeting, being an easier and weaker target. The first family have said some seriously sexist (‘Men from Matabeleland only interested in sex; and they are lazy too’) and tribalistic (‘Kalangas not educated’) comments, but all the wrath and outrage that should have been exhibited here were reserved for Wellington Musapenda. And more recently a minister from the same region says this;

Interestingly enough I saw an article on how Matebeleland is marginalised when it comes to education resources and the question of Shona speaking teachers teaching Ndebele as a language.

The Cartoonist

Cartoonists don’t have to be politically correct neither do they need to be literal, putting all the information in a piece. Its a sketch of a moment in time. This is not even a hard hitting or graphic cartoon. The fact that there was outrage about this shows that as a country we are not even ready for freedom of expression. In the absence of a statement from Musapenda we will all just speculate as to his intention. We can all read what we want into the cartoon. At the same time we see what we want to see. We become offended based on reading into what is not there based on preconceived ideas.

This also had me thinking that I have never heard an instance where the term sexist has been applied in defence of men, its only sexist when men do it. Its also not the responsibility of the cartoonist to come up with solutions for issues he would have pointed out in his work. Neither is he there to take into account the various reasons why the results are bad in this area. He is just stating facts. He has to take away his own personal sentiments and comment on sensitive topics.

Cartoonists and comedians are the ones who generally tackle sensitive issues and use humour and satire to get their message across. They play play on stereotypes, often cause controversy and offend but dull it down with humour (Kuruma wachifuridzira). If people have their way in dictating what the cartoonists is going to draw and comment on, then the work may never be published as the cartoonists negotiates his way across a field of egg shells, afraid to offend with each step.

Representing data

If we look at this solely as data representation we may have had no outrage at all, Musapenda would still be at his desk sending a cartoon everyday to his editor who would approve without even thinking twice about the contents of the cartoon. If we had received this data in the form of pie charts we would have accepted the findings as scientific and just flipped the page, no one would have tweeted it.

We take in a lot of info as stats, graphs and percentages with no offence, its just data and since there are stats by X organisation they must be correct. But if we were to visualise a lot of the data that we accept as ‘just data’ we could interpret it as offensive. Visual representation of data elicits an emotional response as opposed to charts and graphs which are normally cold and impersonal. So is education the ONLY area that Midlands and Matebeleland can excel at, they cannot excel in any other area?

Who’s to blame?

Taking a look at his previous cartoons are they sexist and tribalistic in nature, is there a pattern? If not then how can one cartoon define him? Does he put through his personal opinion? Or is he briefed daily/ weekly about content to focus on and what angle to take. That this was published in a regional daily raises questions about the whole editorial policy of the paper. All the editorial team must be held to account. If the editors story is to be believed, the sub editors sent the paper to print without knowing which cartoon was being published? A cartoon is not something you can just slip into the paper just before it is printed. So a regional paper can’t publish news that is specific to their region without being labelled tribalist? Our future looks bright!

Musapenda has been at that paper for years drawing a cartoon every single day and I am quite sure that there was an unwritten rule that he did not have to present that cartoon to the editor for approval each time. Along comes a new editor who feels he is being undermined by the cartoonist so waits for an opportunity to enforce the ‘editorial policy ‘and stamp his authority. Conspiracy theory? Maybe.

A Double Standard

Its interesting how many have quickly come to the conclusion that these women are of loose morals judging by the clothes they are wearing. But women are dressing like this in Zimbabwean society everyday. On another day there would be outrage for commenting that women dressed like this are prostitutes and are of loose morals. People in their desire to be politically correct and announce their ‘outrage’ are exhibiting the same type of sexism and tribalism as they are condemning.

Its interesting when ever a women succeeds as a model there is always a concerted effort to mention how educated she is, and yet her education plays little to no part in the main reason she has been contracted which is for her looks and her physique. This also betrays a deeper issue of stigmatisation in that we associate dressing like this with prostitutes. So people may tolerate and not say anything. Internally they associate such dress as that of prostitutes. Maybe the cartoonists actually struck a chord somewhere. Could it be he touched on something that people have known but are afraid to speak about?

Comedians and cartoonists say some of the most racist, and sexist comments and play on stereotypes. The same people who are condemning this cartoonists show a double standard. They are happy to call it comedy, satire and social comment when it comes from Chris Rock. We might not like the cartoon. But could the cartoonist be onto something? Maybe we are not prepared to deal with it because we are in denial?

Take him to court

Would a court of law convict Musapenda as being a sexist and a tribalist based on this cartoon alone? I asked a prominent lawyer two questions of which I didn’t get any answers for. Maybe he had already answered these elsewhere. He didn’t feel like repeating himself which is fair enough. It would have been interesting to hear how he would have defended Musapenda in a court of law, if at all it were possible.

As much as I would love it. I don’t see Musapenda coming out to defend himself because. He seems to have already been sacrificed. We have not heard any forced apology or anything. He has been tried and found guilty in the courts of social media. With no opportunity to defend himself. He has obviously been gagged. We have become what we hate, a microcosm of our country.

Conclusion

We make a lot of assumptions. How we have concluded that the women are prostitutes is the same way we judge people on appearance. People certainly seem to be offended. Despite our being offended, if what Musapenda says is true, what are we prepared to do about it? Beyond the outrage, name calling and labelling? Had Chris Rock said this there would have been collective laughter. He would have been given a pass. Under the guise ‘its just comedy, satire etc’. As is usually the case, this will be forgotten soon as another issue for us to be outraged comes.

We are a frustrated people looking for occasions to be outraged. In the process we are ignoring the elephant in the room and jabbing at the likes of Musapenda. Our outrage is misplaced. We have been challenged by the artist. Instead of us taking up the challenge we have decided to put up a faux outrage as a denial mechanism. In turn avoiding to confront the real problems. We celebrate the suspension of the cartoonists as a victory of some sort. This does not make issues highlighted go away. No, the problems are still there. They are certainly not with the cartoonist, nor is it about sexism or tribalism. Come on Zimbabwe lighten up and wise up!

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