KINSHASA, Dec 28 (Reuters) - Thembo Kashauri has sketched some of the most scathing parodies of Joseph Kabila, yet Congo’s best-known political cartoonist has mixed feelings about the taciturn president’s impending departure after nearly two decades in power.
“He had an atypical personality for a head of state but he inspired a lot of my drawings,” the cartoonist known as Kash said in his cramped studio cluttered with old computer equipment in the capital Kinshasa.
“His silences were so eloquent that the fact he didn’t speak much said a lot,” he said of Kabila, who has governed Democratic Republic of Congo since his father’s assassination in 2001.
After Kabila finally agreed not to defy presidential term limits by standing in Sunday’s election, Kash drew a weeping Joseph with his signature salt-and-pepper beard and thick head of hair being comforted by South Africa’s president.
“Power is life,” sobs Kabila as Cyril Ramaphosa reassures him there is life after the presidency.
The election, which has turned into a race between Kabila’s favoured candidate and two main opposition challengers, could lead to Congo’s first democratic transfer of power after decades marked by armed conflicts.
But the poll, which is already two years late because Kabila refused to go when his mandate expired, has been marred by killings on the campaign trail and opposition outcry after the electoral commission cancelled the vote in several of their strongholds, citing security and health concerns.
Kash, 53, is well-accustomed to finding ways to make light of Congo’s grim realities, but he hopes the outcome of Sunday’s vote could lighten the dark mood that permeates his sketches.
“If one of the opposition candidates took power, I think ... we could turn the page,” he said.
Kash, who draws for Le Potentiel, an opposition-leaning daily in Kinshasa, and the news site actualite.cd, has found plenty to poke fun at during a topsy-turvy campaign.
After the electoral commission announced last week yet another seven-day delay to the vote, Kash sketched commission president Corneille Nangaa on an A4 sheet of paper in chef’s whites in a smoke-filled kitchen.
While Nangaa stirs a big pot labelled “December 30 cassoulet”, an anxious waitress asks if the food is ready as the diners are on the verge of rioting.
“I’m trying to portray Congolese people’s anxiety about December 30,” Kash told Reuters after filling in an initial pencil sketch with bold strokes of thick black marker.
Kash, who hails from the eastern city of Beni, began his career as a painter but learned to draw cartoons from a Belgian artist and started to sketch for magazines in the 1980s.
At first, he stuck to cartoons about music and culture but he started depicting veteran Congolese autocrat Mobutu Sese Seko in 1990 after his forces massacred dozens of students in the southeastern city of Lubumbashi.
“We couldn’t caricature politics,” he said. “In 1990, I was just about the first to caricature Mobutu.”
Often heavy-handed repression of journalists and activists has continued since the Mobutu era through the administrations of Laurent Kabila and his son, Joseph.
But Kash says he rarely faces official pressure to tone down his drawings - even if his newspaper occasionally won’t run cartoons it deems too provocative.
On several occasions, he has drawn Congo as an open-air prison hemmed in by high walls and barbed wire. In 2014, he drew Kabila trying on Mobutu’s trademark leopard-skin hat as the old dictator tells him he’ll be able to hold on to power if he just adds a cane and glasses to his repertoire.
Kash’s ability to mock the rich and powerful in Congo reflects in part a country that has long proved too big and too unruly for any leader to muzzle its famed sense of humour, unlike its more tightly controlled neighbours.
“The freedom of expression we have in Congo is the result of a long struggle. In Brazzaville and Rwanda, you don’t mess around. You’ll get yourself killed,” he said.
Even so, there are few other cartoonists who have his fearless style. “They’re too timid,” said Kash.
Despite his self-avowed fondness for drawing Kabila, Kash said his would-be successors have some potential too.
One of the frontrunners, Felix Tshisekedi, has the same bulk as his father, the late opposition icon Etienne, and sports the same distinctive flat cap. Kash said he also enjoys drawing Kabila’s preferred successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.
“Since he was picked as the heir apparent, I’ve been able to draw him fairly easily because he has quite fine features - the nose, the body. He’s an interesting subject to draw.” (Reporting by Alessandra Prentice in Kinshasa and Aaron Ross in Dakar; editing by David Clarke)