How to Commit Suicide in South Africa

By Sue Coe & Holly Metz (Knockabout/A Raw one-shot)
ISBN: 0-86166-0137

When the creative passions are aroused there is no more powerful medium of expression or tool of social change than graphic narrative. Whether it’s the swingeing pictorial satire of reformers such as Hogarth, the prose of Dickens, the publications of Mark Lemon and Henry Mayhew (founders of Punch) or the questing explorations of Will Eisner or Art Spiegelman the trenchant illustration wedded to the loaded word is an overwhelming Weapon of Mass Communication: cheap, universally accessible and capable of extrapolating terrifying conclusions from the scarcest of supplied data.

This perfect example comes from that period of rare world unanimity and applied social pressure which led to the fall of the vile Apartheid regime of South Africa and the literal liberation of millions of disenfranchised and terrorised citizens from their own government.

As part of a broad sweep of disgust and enraged global sensibilities ranging from stunning ridicule (such as e Tom Sharpe’s novels “Indecent Exposure” and “Riotous Assembly”) to such deeply moving audible cries of rage as Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” or Jerry Dammers/The Special A.K.A’s  “Free Nelson Mandela” and even Richard Attenborough’s momentous filmic exposé “Cry Freedom” the planet’s creative community lead a sustained assault on the monsters of Pretoria which eventually forced Western national governments to sever their commercial (and political, anti-Communist) ties to South Africa’s government.

Comic-books got into the act early and often, hopefully opening many young complacent eyes…

While I’m unsure of the exact and total effect of comic condemnation as opposed to legal sanctions and official reprimands, I am utterly certain that politicians listen to the people who vote them in and out, so the power to arouse Joe Public is one I completely appreciate and respect.

From that contentious time comes this stunningly savage graphic account of the day-to-day atrocities of the regime originally compiled and concocted for Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking magazine Raw. Journalist Holly Metz produces chilling, dryly factual accounts of the history in ‘Background’ subdivided into ‘Chronology’ and ‘Homelands’, moves on to recount the social situation of the oppressed majority in ‘84% of The Population’ examined as ‘Miners’, ‘Urban Workers and Unions’, ‘Rural Laborers and Domestics’, ‘Education Under Apartheid’, ‘Rape in Namibia’ and ‘Tsotsis’ (slang for “Criminals”), before moving on to recount with horrifying matter-of-factness the everyday working of ‘Detention and Repression’.

Divided into fully annotated and corroborated accounts of ‘Steve Biko’s Death’, ‘The Torture of Neil Aggett’ (the first white person to die in detention – officially at least), ‘Women Beaten, Tried and Tortured’, ‘Inside BOSS’ (Bureau of State Security) and ‘Deaths in Detention Since 1963’ the catalogue of iniquity concludes with ‘Free World’ a mortifying trawl through ‘The U.S. Connection’ and ‘Blue Chip Deals’ calling to account those governments and companies that upheld the regime and colluded in the suppression of Democracy in South Africa tacitly, overtly and covertly, often while officially decrying the actions of the white minority government. All the material throughout is fully accredited, annotated and supported by copious footnotes and bibliography.

Sue Coe steals the show and provides the emotional and pictorial stimulus with collages formed from found newspaper headlines, advertising material and photos, as well as her simply brutal assemblage of large cartoons and monochrome paintings: dark, moody and breathtakingly evocative. A tip of the hat should also go to the superlative design contributions of Francoise Mouly and Spiegelman himself.

The regime fell in 1994, when after years of gradual erosion and capitulation, the last white President Frederik Willem de Klerk called for the country’s first fully multi-national elections, before retiring to the sin-bin of history.

Even three decades later, re-reviewing this slim (44 card pages), huge (422x265mm) tome still evokes the white hot outrage and sense of injustice it was supposed to, and I sleep a little easier knowing that when the next moral atrocity occurs, somewhere, cartoonists and creators will be ready to employ the same weapons with hopefully as telling a result…
© 1983 Sue Coe and Holly Metz. All rights reserved.

One Reply to “How to Commit Suicide in South Africa”

  1. Hi Win

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    I work for Campfire, a graphic novel publisher, and I thought you might like to learn more about us. If so, please let me know and I’ll send you some information.



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