This "Rape of Justice" cartoon prompted a lawsuit by South African President Jacob Zuma. ((Zapiro))

The South African cartoonist known as Zapiro is determined not to blunt his pen in the face of two lawsuits by the country's new president, Jacob Zuma.

Jonathan Shapiro, who works under the pen name Zapiro, has been a cartoonist-activist in South Africa for 25 years, and was a prominent supporter of the anti-apartheid movement.

He says cartoonists have long been "visual commentators" on the South African political scene but satire is now a dangerous game.

"I was very much situated within the anti-apartheid movement and very much for where the country is going," he told CBC's Q cultural affairs show in an interview from Cape Town.

"I would attack corruption and people that were doing wrong, but really I had a very progressive agenda. I don't feel my agenda has changed. What I feel that's happened is South African politics has changed."


Jonathan Shapiro, who creates cartoons under the pen name Zapiro, talks about his work in Cape Town. ((E-Partners4))

Zuma is suing him for seven million rand ($980,000 Cdn) over a cartoon depicting  Zuma unbuckling his belt, about to rape a figurative Lady Justice.

It's the second such suit by Zuma against the cartoonist, who produces work for the Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times and three other newspapers.

The first dates back to 2006, with a series of  cartoons showing Zuma with a shower nozzle on his head, a reference to a statement he made during his trial for rape of a woman with HIV, which ended in his acquittal.

"The most explosive thing he said was when he was asked about what did he do after, when he had … sex with someone knowing that she was HIV-positive, he said he had a shower. He was asked why. He said to lessen his chances of HIV infection," Shapiro said.

The statement was "appalling" coming from a man who had served on the national AIDS council, Shapiro said and it needed to be highlighted.

"The shower nozzle attached to his head, in a way it started to symbolize more than what happened in that trial. It became symbolic of the strange things he says when he speaks off the cuff and of his general lack of personal integrity," he added.

Shapiro says he questioned Zuma as the ANC's choice for president because of his associations with corrupt officials and has continued that criticism in the face of a backlash against his cartoons.

"The second case, the raping justice one, is even more crucial, where I think his allies were bullying and threatening the judiciary and certainly I can back it up with evidence of that," he said.

"In both cases, I feel I'm on firm ground. He's a public figure and the issues were very much in the public domain. To me, a cartoonist who uses hyperbole, uses the hypothetical, is doing exactly what the conventions of satire and cartooning are all about and that is to make certain overblown statements in order to focus and heighten attention on what is actually happening."

But the reaction from his readers, and from within the ANC, has been discouraging.

"Some politicians in the ANC have spun my history and my opposition to Zuma to make out that I am racist. It's a very painful thing and it's not only happened to me, it's happened to other people. It's an easy and cheap trick," Shapiro said.

Shapiro admits he examined his own motivations in the face of an outcry from young black readers, many of whom did not know of his roots in the anti-apartheid movement.

Shapiro, who is a white South African, refused to carry arms when he was conscripted and became active in anti-apartheid movements in 1983. He studied cartooning in New York on a Fulbright scholarship and was editorial cartoonist for the South and the Sowetan newspapers, using his drawings to lampoon the apartheid regime.

"I don't want to blunt the pen, but have to think about how I do things I want to see progressive politics back on track," he said.

Shapiro has been served a summons in both lawsuits and has served notice that he will defend himself. No trial date has been set.