On February 27th, 2013, ‘The Witness’ celebrated its 167th birthday. It was the year of another auspicious anniversary — the 175th year since the founding of Pietermaritzburg; the city the newspaper has served since its launch. To mark these anniversaries, the newspaper invited their longstanding cartoonist, STIDY (Anthony Stidolph), to write about his time at the newspaper and, especially, the pleasure of focusing his sharp eye on the city.


- by Anthony Stidolph (STIDY)

I JOINED The Witness as its political cartoonist in 1990, at a time when momentous changes were taking place, both locally and internationally. On the other side of the world, the old Soviet Union was collapsing as first the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and then Armenia, Georgia and Moldavia all demanded their freedom.

As the red flag of the communist USSR was being lowered in Moscow and replaced with the flag of the Republic of Russia, South Africa was facing its own watershed moment. On February 2, 1990 – my second day in my new job – President F.W. de Klerk stunned the world by announcing in Parliament the unbanning of 34 organisations, including the ANC.

Nine days later, Nelson Mandela, who had been incarcerated for the past 26 years, was unconditionally released and, with his wife Winnie at his side, walked through the gates of Victor Verster Prison to freedom. Apartheid had, effectively, been consigned to the dustbin of history.

The worthy citizens of Pietermaritzburg were, in the meantime, being confronted by a few epoch-defining changes of their own. One of my first cartoons, for example, revolved around the great debate over whether women should finally be allowed entry into the Victoria Club, which, being new in town, struck me as being a rather strange discussion to be having at the wrong end of the 20th century.

With Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party having taken control of the regional Parliament in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1994 elections, a slightly more pressing argument that would rage over the next few years was whether Pietermaritzburg should retain its capital status or lose out to Ulundi. Thankfully that matter was put to rest when the ANC won the subsequent elections.

Ulundi or PMB?

Since then, the city has been plagued by the usual host of problems facing most post-democracy South African municipalities — weak financial management, poor service delivery, a crumbling infrastructure and corruption, etc. The situation, in our case, eventually got so bad the Msunduzi Municipality was stripped of its decision-making powers and the day-to-day running of municipal affairs was taken over by an administrator appointed by the KwaZulu-Natal Co-operative Governance Department.

Political cartooning is, by its very nature, a fairly negative art form. Cartoonists are not paid to be praise-singers, so all of this “bad news” has, of course, provided plenty of much-welcome grist for the mill. The fact that Pietermaritzburg also chose to go ahead and rebrand itself as the City of Choice only added to my scope for satirical comment.

Indeed, one of the reasons I have always preferred working for a relatively small, provincial newspaper, like The Witness, rather than a large daily national, is that it has allowed me to develop a much more intimate, two-way relationship with my audience. Being based in Pietermaritzburg, I am able to look at and comment on local issues that directly affect our readers’ everyday lives — the shenanigans in the city hall, the rates issue, the potholed roads, the endless accidents on Town Hill, the e.coli count in the Duzi, and the fortunes of the local football team, etc. — which is something I probably would not have been able to do otherwise.

I often have people coming up to me in supermarkets or in the street, wanting to comment on cartoons I have drawn or to offer ideas and suggestions of their own. As such, I have come to look upon my work very much as a form of community outreach, a way of engaging with our wider constituency.

Whether the city fathers themselves pay any heed to these helpful hints of mine (i.e. get your house in order) is, of course, another matter.

Posted on Feb 27, 2013 by Stidy Bookmark and Share