Alexander Matthews
Alexander Matthews

The Spear: SA will not overcome fear by giving into it

Brett Murray’s defaced The Spear stands as a monument to intolerance. After thousands of ANC supporters marched to the Goodman Gallery where it had once been on display, the gallery has agreed it will not be displayed publicly again.

While representations of the painting now enjoy the ubiquity of the web, what price have we paid for the original painting’s removal from the gallery’s wall? In the aftermath of the fury unleashed by the ANC, will artists still dare to challenge and provoke? Or has South Africa accepted that culture and “acceptability” is something determined only by its ruling party?

It has become impossible for the ANC to mask its totalitarian instincts: if it hadn’t already, the mask slipped this week. When the party feels threatened, the Constitution no longer matters; neither do the courts: it is only the power of the raised fist to invoke fear and unleash retribution that is of consequence.

While opposition was relatively muted – whether in the arts, on the streets or the benches of parliament – the ANC could maintain the pretence of supporting the concept of a constitutional democracy, one in which robust criticism can flourish. Now the party is under siege, both internally (through its vicious faction fights) and externally, thanks to ebbing support, increasing disillusionment at persistent poverty and a growing political opposition.

Will a gallery in South Africa ever again be brave enough (or even be permitted) to display art condemned by the powerful as outrageous? Or will controversial culture be exported – onto the web, and to exhibition spaces abroad? Are our artists to become exiles once more, hounded for daring to question or expose?

Freedom is difficult, sometimes painful. Freedom guarantees being able to question, comment, criticise – even if by doing so insult and outrage is the result. Art must provoke, must make us argue and discuss – even if our feelings get a bit bruised in the process. If we are so fearful of causing offence, we will become blinkered; how can we search for truth, or inspire debate, if we are so afraid of the consequences?

“The norm” needs to be constantly unpicked and explored, and the powerful scrutinised. Not long ago, slavery, denying women the vote and jailing gays was “the norm”. It was through exercising freedom of expression, culturally and politically, that these practices were banished (although tragically in some parts of the world today these practices are still considered acceptable).

In a country in which rape and the abuse of women and children are rampant, it is vital that we have a conversation about gender, power and patriarchy. It is vital that art catalyses a discussion on the way women are treated, and a discussion about the need for us all – male and female, black and white – to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women.

The backlash against The Spear threatens to silence that much-needed discussion. The ANC’s and its supporters’ rhetoric implicitly suggests that commenting or critiquing the president’s version of masculinity and the actions that stem from it is simply taboo – especially if the critic is white.

If we are to attain genuine freedom and equality for all South Africans, no culture should be sacrosanct or off limits. Rather they should be interrogated and explored.

This week South Africa’s largest news site, News24, voluntarily removed an image of The Spear not long after City Press, the Sunday newspaper embroiled in a legal battle with the ANC over the image, took it off its website too.

News24 claimed it was doing this “in a spirit of healing and nation-building”. This is at best misguided. Nation-building is defying those who seek to dictate what is culturally acceptable and what is not. It is standing up to attempts to quash creative expression. Nation-building is fighting for the rights enshrined in our Constitution. In the long term, little can be gained (least of all “healing”) by surrendering to intolerance.

South Africa will not overcome fear by giving into it. The nation can only grow if the right to provoke, question and criticise is vigorously defended.

Alexander Matthews is a journalist based in Cape Town. Follow him on Twitter.

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    • Ngelengele

      About 3 weeks ago we hailed DA’s march to Cosatu House as a success of democracy. We condemned Cosatu for their behaviour (rightly so). Now, the ANC march to the Gallery to express their disapproval of art, exercising their rights (rightly so). Your answer to it is:

      “When the party feels threatened, the Constitution no longer matters; neither do the courts: it is only the power of the raised fist to invoke fear and unleash retribution that is of consequence.”

      “The ANC’s and its supporters’ rhetoric implicitly suggests that commenting or critiquing the president’s version of masculinity and the actions that stem from it is simply taboo – especially if the critic is white.”

      Do you ever read your own article before publishing it?

      Throughout your whole rhetoric your best of thoughts is: “If we are to attain genuine freedom and equality for all South Africans, no culture should be sacrosanct or off limits. Rather they should be interrogated and explored.”

      According to you we must override’s the very constitution you claim to stand for, only to serve your version of genuine freedom and equality (hypocrisy at best). Remember, if you lie to yourself for too long, you end up believing your own lies.

    • Max

      ” In the aftermath of the fury unleashed by the ANC, will artists still dare to challenge and provoke? Or has South Africa accepted that culture and “acceptability” is something determined only by its ruling party?”

      I think we will see many many more subversive artworks. A new resistance art is being born. Free creative people will always make fun of those with too much power. They will always seek to make art that is as upsetting as the behavior of the inept and corrupt powerful… and then of course wait for the predictable outcry from those sycophants, prudes and ignorant who disavow the evil ways of their beloved powerful. The Spear may be down but its work is done. It has fertilized the imaginations of a new generation of resistance artists.

    • Captain Morgan

      SA will not overcome disunity and gain reconciliation by disregarding the culture of the majority of SA’s population and disrespecting the father of the nation (no matter what skin colour he has or what wrongs he had done, he is the head of the country as voted for by more than 66% of the people of this country). Every citizen of SA has the right to dignity and most of all, The President of The Republic of South Africa.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The Brett Murray Exhibition is called “Hail To The Thief”. Since there is nothing in black traditional belief systems to prohibit theft, and Zuma is a proclaimed traditionalist, why is everyone surprised?

      Black traditional animists believe in a Creator God, and the spirits of the ancestors, who intercede with God. But everyone who dies becomes an ancestor – there is no judgement day and no exclusion from the afterlife. Also the black God has issued no 10 Commandments.

      This is unlike the brown Bushmen who believed that in the afterlife the “good” received a “good” afterlifelife of honey and locusts,and the “bad” a “bad” afterlife eating ants. It is from the Bushmen that the Muslim, Jewish and Christian belief systems evolved.

      Without either a 10 commandments or a judgement day – what prohibits theft?

      You are all so obssessed with skin colour that you don’t see that culture and religious beliefs are much bigger differences.

    • Ernst Marais

      In regard to Murray, I have a feeling of schadenfreude.
      If you dish it out, you must be willing to take it.

      Murray was the ANC’s darling when he depicted the NP Government and Afrikaners as vile.
      Now Murray and the other ANC’s useful idiots are on the receiving end.

      Brett, packing for Perth?

    • Adamastor

      Since Murray hasn’t commented, we can’t even be sure that the work depicts Zuma. To my untrained eye there is a closer resemblance to Vavi with the Lenin connection – the same allusion to scre*ing the Nation.

      The reaction to it has been equally misguided, I see there is a Wikipedia entry: and a Google search for “Images” shows at least 20 pages and includeds some of a topless “Zille” which she wisely laughed off. I guess that Murray is a very disillusioned supporter.

    • Paleface

      If Zuma had conducted himself in a dignified manner, as is becomming a President or leader, the “spear” would not have happened. In its defence the ANC has shown the same “Laager” mentality that was so evident in the NAT government during the apartheid years. Criticism of its leaders, in any form, will not be tolerated and an injury to one is an injury to all.
      Dignity is not a right. It is earned, and only if you have earned it, can you claim the respect.

    • Tofolux

      @Alexander, I hope that you have noted the following contradictions, ie Justice Malala’s article which ”moved” all your colleagues to such an extent that Ferial has now in the face of all her protestations, relented and withdrew. The Goodman Gallery coming to the party and withdrawing, citing their insensitivity. The persons who defaced the painting saying that they were moved by some imaginable force to deface this because this is not freedom. Now, these are ordinary citizens and not ANC and yet YOUR protestation is levelled at them in particular. But quite rightly it has been ANC who has taken up the cause for another right to be protected and that is the right to dignity. Not only are they our constant freedom fighters historically, they will today and in the future, always be the ones who will take up the fight for our freedom and dignity. You see Alexander, the joke is on you guys, Not only is the silence so deafening from your ilk, it exposes the fact that you will protect all that is disgusting in our society. Oh and by the way, the Murray’s exhibition was not limited to the painting only, so how can you possibly ignore this monumentous fact and argue intolerance. How can one argue for integrity when the person making the argument lie in order to make a point. Now thats disingenuous on your part but I guess you are destined to become just another papparazzi journalist.

    • Africanus

      Lyndall, you note that “there is nothing in black traditional belief systems to prohibit theft…”. This is surely misguided – how can you say that black people in general lack this basic human morality? I think we must not confuse the behaviour of the ANC – which is profoundly totalitarian, violent and elitist and which exploits the basic instincts of the worst thugs and hooligans – with black people in general. The ANC values are based on European Communism which set out to encourage a tiny criminal elite lording it over thuggish hordes of the lowest orders who could be relied on to keep that criminal elite in power. There is nothing African about these ideas and values.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      The black tribes of Africa’s favourite passtime was theft – especially theft of women and cattle from the neighbouring tribe – when the whites arrived from the whites, who were just another tribe to them, they were not racist at all – happy to steal from either white or black tribe.

      Their second favourite passtime was lying – the most inventive lies which stunned the white settlers.

      Why not? The rest of the world does the same – but are more hypocritical about it.

      Which is WHY the tribal chiefs used the death penalty for law and order – not to stop them stealing from the neighbours but from the chief, his guests, or their own tribe.

    • MLH

      I think the majority is partly caught up in confusion of note, caused both by being exhorted by their struggle saviours to respond a particular way and by being caught between two opposing worlds: the past, tribal one and the present eurocentric one. This is why I shudder at the tribal bill presently under discussion; it pulls people two ways and makes acceptance of new ways harder for them.
      Change, while being inevitable, is always painful for all of us and this is an aspect of change people will be forced to face sooner or later. We should not expect it to be easy for them, but it would be easier if more had jobs that gave them more opportunity to mingle. Those of us who must cope with Google algorithm changes on a regular basis are beginning to understand this sort of ongoing difficulty, too.
      There are two sides in this issue: those who accept certain truths and others who do not. I don’t think that those of us who accept the letter of the constitution and eurocentric beliefs receive sufficient acknowledgement for letting calm pervade before violence errupted…we backed down to relieve a tension that will need, soon, to be pursued and addressed. Those doing their ostrich act will not be able to continue it forever. Why did we back down? Because we are more sensitive to majority feelings that it imagines.
      Baby steps…
      By next week many will again be accusing us of some imagined slight and the whole round will begin again.


    • MLH

      By next week many will again be accusing us of some imagined slight and the whole round will begin again. For us, it’s getting boring! We are not being given due credit for our contributions to this country and that irks us.
      However, change will come in time and hopefully more people will understand what this is all about as we proceed. The media debate has already become saner, with writers who have traditional backgrounds beginning to point out hard truths.
      Debate has already reached the stage where we have been able to point out how ridiculous the arguments are: we have never seen the claims to clothed dignity that we are accused of slighting; men proudly urinate in public, preferably in front of women; they strip on beaches and strip their virgin maidens for older men to leer at; they refuse to guard themselves and their women from dread diseases by using condoms. In short, they behave with far less dignity than they claim.
      If only a few thousand are converted on each occasion these issues are highlighted, they should not be considered defeats. In another ten years, far more children will have passed through Model C schools and will have learnt from their childhoods the same as we did. Their mothers, who have struggled to educate those kids better will catch on and agree with the changes. In many cases, dads will too.

    • MLH

      Don’t give up Guys, but being too harsh, too quickly, will not encourage equilibrium. People are being driven by those with evil intentions and we need to prove our better ones to be both politically and non-politically diplomatic.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Since the death penalty was the only way to stop rape. murder and theft in black tradition – what gave the Constitutional Court the right to outlaw it? Why keep one tradition, like polygamy, and not another?

      Please note that Botswana. the top performer in Africa, still has the Death Penalty.

      And like in the Old South Africa it is very seldom used – but is a massive deterant! As it is in China,

      If it has NOT been exercised with discretion by the judges in the old SA – Mandela would have been condemned to death.

      My father always said that either Mandela or O R Tambo were bad attorneys or they knew they were not facing a death penalty, because there was no precedent in SA for a death penalty sentence ONLY for treason without there also have been murder.

      Of course, my father said, maybe they had killed but the facts were never discovered?

    • The Creator

      Does anybody outside the immediate circle of Zuma, Brett Murray, and their friends give a damn about this painting?

      I suspect that almost everybody in South Africa outside the media would far rather someone paid a little attention to the actual problems faced by the average South African instead of fantasising about the Presidential prick.

    • Nelly

      I’m a young black girl in Universtiy and my culture we are always taught to respect our elders no matter what but ofcourse in the sam light i am a 21st century baby who has her views and knows the difference between wrong and right. The painting however it was meant to be portrayed was a toatal adisregard for the president, now i’m not a staunch politics follower and i certainly dont agree with the things our President does but at the end of the day, our President is a father and a leader, i dont think we should be judging the President on his personal life but rather on his capacity as a President, if we are to comment on his personal life we would never end the argument, so how about we look at that painting in the eyes of his children? how would you like it if your fathers assets were shown thrown out for the world to see like that? I’m just saying.