Tom Sharpe’s comic novel Indecent Exposure mercilessly lampooning white racism in South Africa was predictably banned under the apartheid government. I managed to get my copy during a visit to Sun City, where such contraband was legally obtainable (since it fell within the boundaries of the ‘independent’ homeland of Bophuthatswana).
In one scene, a distraught white woman confides to psychologist Dr von Blimenstein her fears over the rampant sexual appetites of black men and, in particular, their penises. Of the latter, she babbles, “They’re eighteen inches long and three inches thick and they’ve got foreskins like umbrellas and – “, at which point she is interrupted.
Related to this is the critic David Rosen’s theory that the sexual theme of the film King Kong touches on “the standard racist myth of the black male’s exaggerated sexual potency, and the complementary notion of his insatiable desire for white women”. Of course, in this reading, the Empire State Building in the movie’s famous culminating scene is seen as “the world’s foremost phallic symbol”.
Not everyone will buy into this interpretation of the film, but so far as the “racist myth of the black male’s exaggerated sexual potency” goes, it can hardly be denied that we are dealing with an abiding reality. Thabo Mbeki’s bizarre theories on HIV/Aids are believed to have at least in part been motivated by sensitivities over the characterisation of Africans as being intrinsically promiscuous.
All this, as you may have guessed, is leading up to the day’s big issue, namely the rights and wrongs of the Brett Murray portrait depicting Jacob Zuma’s genitals. This is not to say that I believe Murray to have harboured the above-mentioned prejudices, even at a subliminal level. Nevertheless, he has, like it or not, strayed into this dangerous territory. In terms of the outrage it has sparked, it may be the proverbial elephant in the room.
This is one reason why I, albeit that I have never been exposed to this form of prejudice, feel deeply uncomfortable about the painting (as I did about Zapiro’s even more derisive caricature of the president’s much talked-about member). Another is that, for all his shortcomings, I do believe that the leader of our country should be accorded an appropriate degree of respect. He is, after all, the face not just of his party or his government, but of South Africa as a whole. Moreover, he has been entrusted with making innumerable crucial decisions that affect the lives of millions. Surely, by virtue of the dignity of his office alone, he deserves a little more respect?
It is true that Zuma’s exuberant fecundity has provoked no little embarrassment to South Africa, particularly when it has taken place outside the boundaries of his five marriages. At the end of the day, though, he is not the only world leader who has been criticised for his over-active sex life. Obvious examples of others include Bill Clinton and Silvio Berlusconi, and I am unaware of their private parts having ever featured in cartoons or artworks.
I have just heard that the Murray painting has been vandalised. If true, I suppose I ought to feel a sense of outrage over this crime against art and freedom of expression. Right now, I only feel that the artist and the host gallery have gotten what they asked for.