The Star’s cartoonist Dov Fedler had a knack for drawing us together

The drawing is striking. The faced on the horizon is immediately recognisable as Nelson Mandela’s – but it’s not made up of pencil marks or brush strokes. 

Instead the bottom third of the face are the wavelets of the rolling waves as the tide goes out. The top half of the drawing are seagulls flying off into the sunset. Madiba’s lips are Table Mountain.

There’s a little guy on the beach, looking out. He’s a paper seller. His little poster that captures his thoughts of the events of the day is blank.

The drawing is poignant and unforgettable. Brilliant in its simplicity, breathtaking in its clarity. It’s the work of a master, someone who has slaved literally over a blank sheet of paper with a pencil and a rubber every day for 50 years.

That person is Dov Fedler. 

Today he leaves The Star after a career that has spanned South Africa – and indeed the globe’s – darkest days and greatest triumphs from the first man to walk on the moon to the release of Mandela and the birth of the Rainbow Nation; he missed Hendrik Vewoerd but he’s drawn everyone else since all the way through to capturing the hope of Barack Obama.

His favourite subject though remains Madiba and his favourite drawing – in a catalogue that numbers more than 15 000.  The drawing, done in preparation for the icon’s passing as he fought against the dying of the light, was done quickly – in bed.

“It all flowed naturally. I’d done one when Madiba originally fell ill, with the vultures lying in wait for him. This one I wanted to be natural, respectful.

“Some ideas are perfect, others just flow like this one. When I hit on this one, it was the definitive idea. You know you often see a cartoon and think, ‘hell, I wish I’d done that!’ Well this was the cartoon for me,” he says.

Fedler, born Noah David Fedler to parents who had fled the progroms in Lithuania, never wanted to be a cartoonist. He wanted to draw comics, in fact he was besotted about Walt Disney and his first drawings were of Mickey Mouse, as well as Mussolini and Hitler, understandable when you think his formative years were World War II.

His father wanted him to be a dentist, with the typical Jewish wisdom that the job would give him the title of doctor but spare him being called out at night and over weekends. Fedler and his father settled on architecture at Wits, with Fedler giving up on his dream of studying fine arts, but when he failed his first year, he dropped out and went to work in advertising – after a brief sojourn at art school.

There he met Stuart Wilson, thee creative director of Van Zyl Lunt and Tredoux – that would ultimately be taken over by Ogilvie Mather. Wilson was a top creative director, but also was a closet cartoonist.

He said “I don’t have a job, but I’ll make one for you”.

It was at Van Zyl’s where Fedler met Percy Baneshik who needed an illustrator for his arts column in the Rand Daily Mail. Fedler followed him to the short-lived Sunday Chronicle, where he met Jack Kros, the deputy editor. 

“I was 23 and producing the 10 illustrations a week. The Sunday Chronicle was ahead of its time. It closed after two years.”

Baneshik and Kros moved over to the Chronicle’s sister newspaper, The Star, where Kros would ultimately become deputy editor.

In 1969, Kros told Fedler: “I want you to do political cartoons.”

“I said I couldn’t. Kros said ‘if you can’t I’ll get someone who can,’ so I said I can.”

And thus began a career that lasted well past the age where most people opt to put their feet up and literally smell the roses.

Looking back after spending the last 50 years drawing for The Star – and at stages The Mercury, Pretoria News, Cape Times, Saturday Star and the Financial Mail, with work that’s been published as far afield as Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post and Britain’s Punch magazine – Fedler muses: “It was never the career I wanted, I wanted to be like Walt Kelly  (who wrote a satirical political strip called Pogo) or Charles Schulz (the creator of Charlie Brown), thank G-d I never did – they’re dead  now and Charlie Brown and other cartoon strips like it are done by committees.

“I was very very lucky to develop in the 60s, there were the Beatles, Mad magazine, I worked in advertising which was a great place to be, where people were going against the grain and capturing the spirit of the time. There was a great camaraderie.”

Over the last 50 years he’s worked for a range of editors, but hasn’t just done political cartoons; Zibi, the rubbish loving ostrich of the 1980s anti-litter campaign is his, along with his own comic strip Jet Jungle. Then there’s his house full of incredible oils and water colours, inspired and infused by the masters grand and otherwise who have influenced him. There are stunning bronze sculptures on windowsills and book shelves. 

Cartoonist Dov Fedler at his Studio in Linden near Johannesburg. (Picture: Boxer Ngwenya)

He’s exhibited his art here and abroad and he’s even written a memoir, the critically acclaimed Out of Line, a story about growing up Jewish in Joburg, next door to the Mayfair shul, moving to Greenside, meeting the Lubbavitcher rebbe in New York…

“I’m a bit relieved at the prospect of not having daily deadlines,” he says, “I’m trying to write my second book, I’m trying to do a text book. I’m not as fris as I was.”

It’s lie. There are few men a decade younger who are as fit or as busy.

He’s quietly satisfied at his impending retirement. “I think my stuff is better, I believe I can look back on a body of work that has maintained a standard and I think improved, I was always worried that I wouldn’t.”

“I want to teach, maybe create a cartooning master class, I’ve got to master social media,” he says. His big passion though is to teach visual literacy to teachers and pupils.

“If you can write the word, you can draw the animals, that’s the driving message behind ‘Draw What You Saw’.”

He’s still looking for corporate funders to take the project beyond concept stage to implementation, something that will move into top gear as he ‘retires’.

So, what of the little man who appears in the corner of every Fedler cartoon? A unique signature.

“I was asked to open an exhibition at the Market Theatre called ‘The cartoonist in Context’,” Fedler remembers. “I said my little guy ultimately represents the little guy on the side of the picture. He’s got no name, he’s a poor guy selling the newspaper while all these big events are passing him by, he’s the man in the street. I’ve always tried to keep my point of view of the man in the street – who is far more savvy about what’s going on than politicians give him, or her, credit for.. 

“But it also gave me a way of voicing a sentiment outside of the main body. It was also kind of a way to say what I was thinking. I once had to do a cartoon about different languages so I had all these people speaking and I drew a little hippy guy and he said ‘cool’ and the next day I embedded him and he’s been there ever since.

“It gives different levels, I want my cartoons to be read on different levels, I don’t want it straight in your face, but rather something that provides different nuances,” he says. The worst thing a cartoonist can do is lecture to the readers, he feels. 

“Essentially, cartoons should be funny, a diversion from the rest of the serious stuff in the newspaper.”

Current US president Donald Trump, he says, is a perfect example.

“Not all cartoons are funny, the Mandela cartoon is not funny, its poignant.”

Mandela’s death hit Fedler – and the rest of South Africa – hard.

“The death of Mandela left me bereft. One didn’t realise just what his presence gave to everything and with the loss of him we are confronted by the reality of the gangsters who rule over us. It’s as if we are living in a world written by Pieter-Dirk Uys.” 

Originally published by The Star on 28 February 2017.