Here's Nelson Mandela's story, told through political cartoons

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. Nelson Mandela spent his sixth day in the hospital today. He's being treated for a recurring lung infection. The anti-apartheid hero is 94, so people in South African and around the globe have been giving a lot of thought lately to his legacy. Today president Jacob Zuma urged South Africans to reflect on Mandela's entire life and struggle, not just his years as the country's first Black president.
John Curtis is doing just that through political cartoons past and present. Curtis runs Africartoons which features the work of South Africa's top editorial cartoonists. Africartoons got its start as a showcase for cartoons about Nelson Mandela, and John, you think it's important to show the life of Nelson Mandela through political cartoons. Tell us why?

John Curtis: Well, I think of all the personalities out there his is obviously one that cartoonists have really embraced, especially looking at the cartoons retrospectively. It's interesting to see how cartoonists warmed up to Nelson Mandela, those that were initially skeptical about him. And it's also interesting, having a look at the way his story evolves through political cartoons.

Werman: It's noteworthy too that for a subject like Mandela, I mean, cartoonists had been forbidden by the South African government for a long time to draw him. Tell us about that ban.

Curtis: That's quite right. It was a ban called the Banned Persons Act, was promulgated in 1950 as part of the Suppression of Communism Act. What it intended to do was not only ban the person from meeting more than one person at a time, but it also banned anybody from quoting or depicting that person, even referring to them. Obviously that had a huge impact on cartoonists of the day.

Werman: Right, so now you've got this project to kind of present the life of Nelson Mandela through political cartoons by South African cartoonists, but I imagine many of those cartoons don't actually feature his face. How did that affect your options in curating all this?

Curtis: It restricted the options tremendously. Nelson Mandela's story in political cartoons only really starts in the 1990s. In the late 80s there are a couple that allude to him but don't depict his face. It was very difficult for them because nobody knew what Nelson Mandela looked like and they had to borrow from descriptions from people who had visited him. And there was a poster that was created in the Netherlands which some cartoonists imagined how Nelson Mandela would look 27 years after anyone had last seen him.

Werman: So there weren't any pictures anybody could kind of use at the time to kind of at least understand what he looked like? I mean, I understand some of those political cartoons in South Africa couldn't draw him, but just imagining him?

Curtis: Yeah, yeah, you know, there were one or two photographs that were taken of him while he was on Robin Island but they weren't broadly distributed, and cartoonists certainly didn't have access to them in South Africa.

Werman: So, as far as that ban, did South African cartoonists comply with it, or did they figure out clever ways to work around it?

Curtis: A couple of the cartoonists in the late 1980s started to work around it. They would allude to Mandela, which was also in conflict with the law. But they started to do that in the late 1980s when it started looking like things were about to change.

Werman: Right, and when did the ban kind of get ignored altogether? Was it before Mandela actually walked out of prison?

Curtis: Yes, by 1989 it became clear that the government wasn't going to charge people for contravening the Banned Persons Act. But they'd still not seen him and they were really challenged to imagine what he would look like the day he walked out of prison.

Werman: When Mandela finally walked out of prison what were some of the comments about how he looked from cartoonists? Were people saying, oh, he looked like this, I thought he was going to look like that?

Curtis: Well, it's interesting looking back that some of the cartoonists were still skeptical about Nelson Mandela and what he would be bringing to the table. And a couple of them showed that in their initial cartoons where they showed him with these fists raised up in defiance and alluded to his militancy and everything, and only later on did those cartoonists relax in their depictions of him.

Werman: I'm wondering too, with time having passed how the community of cartoonists in South Africa has changed since the end of apartheid.

Curtis: Well, I suppose with everything the community has changed tremendously. During the apartheid era there was only one black cartoonist who drew for a mainstream newspaper, and now probably half of the cartoonists in South Africa, there are about 50 in all, are black cartoonists. So it's wonderful how cartoonists have become more representative of the country.

Werman: John Curtis runs Africartoons, a showcase for the work of contemporary political cartoonists in South Africa. You can see two slideshows of South African political cartoons documenting the life of Nelson Mandela at John, thanks very much.

Curtis: Thank you very much.