European Literature Days 2016: Review on Anton Kannemeyer by Christian Gasser

Biting Satirical Comics from the Cape of Good Hope
Anton Kannemeyer alias Joe Dog, a white South African, is just as controversial as he is popular in his home country. In comics, caricatures and paintings he scrutinizes post-apartheid South Africa. His satire makes it obvious what the apartheid legacy is, and how it complicates relationships among ethnic groups.

His anthology, Pappa in Afrika, has been published in several languages and brilliantly conveys the unsettling consequences of his analysis of his home country. Kannemeyer’s illustrative style is particularly striking – its naivety contradicts the content.

The front cover of Pappa in Afrika looks like the cover of an early Adventures of Tintin story. A white man chugs through the savannah in an old car, past black people who are characterized stereotypically: dark black skin, big white eyes, dark red bulging lips and scant facial expression. But here’s where the similarity with Tintin stops. These black people are suffering from hunger, one brandishes a Kalashnikov, another bleeds to death and another limps about as an amputee on wooden crutches.

Welcome to the Africa of white South African comic book writer, Anton Kannemeyer, who evokes images of old colonial Africa to summarize problems in South Africa today.


“When I was young I actually wanted to illustrate adventure comics”, recalls the Tintin fan. “I would never have imagined illustrating political comics; I found politics boring.”

But everything turned out differently. Anton Kannemeyer (b. 1967) – son of the famous literary critic J.C. Kannemeyer – grew up as a privileged Boer in South Africa of the apartheid era. At the age of twenty he began to sense that in South Africa not all things were fair – and this became material for his comics.

In 1992, with Conrad Botes, he co-founded the magazine Bitterkomix, which is still published at irregular intervals today. In raging and provocative comics Anton Kannemeyer worked through his background of privilege and repression; he concentrated on his parent’s guilt, his own passivity as a youngster and his identity as a white South African both pre- and post-apartheid. “That was our answer not just to apartheid, but also to the entire repressive and inhibited Christian and national culture of the Afrikaner, to taboos such as sex, racism, homophobia and misogyny.”

Provocative explosiveness

Bitterkomix hit home like a bomb. Kannemeyer and Botes became a target of hatred among many Afrikaner who would have preferred to suppress apartheid and their own complicity in it as quickly as possible. Besides, they encountered repeated problems with the official censors – ironically even among the ANC government. The provocative explosiveness of their comics is still understandable from our distanced and remote viewpoint: Kannemeyer und Botes are never satisfied with classic satire that denounces things from a safe distance. They are at the heart of everything in their culture and comics. Many of their stories are autobiographical – stories about domestic violence and incest, about paramilitary and religious drills at school, about indoctrination and punishment beatings, about ignorance and hypocrisy and a totally twisted sexuality.

The most powerful story is 1974. On just five pages, and without words, it gets to the crux of the paranoia, repression and hypocrisy in white society: a crowd of bloodthirsty blacks attacks an attractive suburban villa with speers and axes; the family’s bald father tries vainly to protect his family; the son flees the house, stumbles, a black man pulls him down – and the boy wakes up. It was only a nightmare. The boy gets dressed, races to school, arrives too late – and is brutally beaten in front of all the children by the teacher.

Fear as ideology

For decades, apartheid repressed non-whites. But the ideological superstructure of racial segregation also permeated the life of the white Afrikaner. The government, church and school painted a picture of a homeland in peril due to internal and external enemies and with Calvinist austerity fought fashion, pop music and the erosion of moral values. “The ideological objective of our education was obvious”, says Kannemeyer in an interview, “They wanted to indoctrinate us with fear. Fear from the risk of blacks, fear from the red threat, fear of sexuality and so on. The message was clear: it’s alien, so we have to protect ourselves from it.”

Resorting to Hergés’ cartoonist clear line aesthetics is a stroke of genius to visually expose the consequences of this indoctrination. As long as blacks and whites see each other like stereotypical caricatures from Tintin in the Congo no genuine mutual understanding is possible, not even in the rainbow nation.

Kannemeyer’s comics are merciless and pessimistic. At the same time, however, they are at least equally brilliant and highly comical and filled with ruptures and contradictions. Just like South Africa today.

Today, Kannemeyer und Botes are successful artists and respected representatives of a new, self-critical Afrikaner culture. Their subject – analyzing apartheid and its consequences for today’s South Africa – is no less topical, but there is still plenty to work through. Meanwhile, their comics, caricatures, paintings and sculptures make it obvious in a nightmarish way that apartheid has not yet been overcome by some margin but that its effects still persist today.

By Christian Gasser

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

Anton Kannemeyer

Papa in Afrika

Avant Verlag, Berlin, 2014

also published in English, Spanish, Portuguese.

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 1 August 2016.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory


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