Not for the first time, the country was brought almost to a standstill by its president’s membrum virile.

Only this time it wasn’t because the polygamous president had unsafe intercourse with the HIV positive daughter of a close friend; nor was he caught in adultery with another comrade’s daughter. It was not the revelation of yet another child out of wedlock; nor was it even the accidental public display of his manly tackle while dancing at one of his many weddings. No, this time it was a painting; the clipart depiction of an imagined penis adorning a highly stylised graphic portrait barely recognisable as President Jacob Zuma.

For years now artist Brett Murray has been targeting the venality of the ANC in government. His exhibition Hail to the Thief II was the sequel to his last mordacious attack. It was only when his lèse-majesté, entitled The Spear, left the safe, self-congratulatory, elite haven of the Goodman Gallery by being reproduced in the City Press that it came to some public notice.

There it might have stayed had the president and the ANC not decided a week after opening to approach the Film and Publication Board to have the painting classified as pornography, and to seek an urgent court interdict to have the artwork removed.

By making the painting an issue of national concern, Zuma cannot be said to have done much to contain the negligible damage it was likely to do to his dignity. The image went viral and global and has now been ogled and googled by millions of people who were highly unlikely to have ever seen it otherwise, in particular those of his hometown and family.

In the eyes of many foreigners, Zuma’s response is not that of a president of a modern, progressive, democratic country. Satirical depictions are par for the course where citizens are free to think.

The Reaction
There were South Africans, black- and white-skinned, aghast at the furious reaction. A few made sincere attempts to try and understand why their compatriots were deeply outraged and angered by what seemed to them a somewhat puerile caricature.

Particularly disconcerting was the abrupt realisation that their value system, the one enshrined in the Constitution, seemed suddenly incompatible with the views of many of their countrymen, and that the president was leading the charge.

Inevitably allegations of racism were levelled at the middle-aged, white artist. White liberals, empathetic to the pain the image was causing fellow citizens and wracked with racial guilt now accused Murray of slandering blacks as sexual terrorists, and wantonly attacking the dignity their president – a father, a husband, the patriarch.

The radical intelligentsia were even more strident in their condemnation. They read all manner of encoded racism into the artwork, right down to the red and black colours as conjuring up “rooi” and “swart gevaar”. It is true the portrait is a spoof on a famous Communist Party 1917 poster of Lenin, Peace Land Bread, but such costive interpretations of the work were certainly lost on everyone else, including the outraged.

Supporters of the president needed no persuasion.

Yet glaringly absent were statements of solidarity with Zuma from black women commentators. Presidential offspring excepted, a few expressed distaste at the portrait and – as Tsalene Tambo put it – thought Zuma should “get over it”.

The Gauteng branch of the ANC Woman’s League very belatedly issued a statement in support of the president; the ANC Woman’s League even later, most likely under political pressure, the last voice to speak.

Although the work may well feed into a deeper more pernicious discourse, the charge of naked racism based on this explicitly personal critique is too far a stretch to be credible. (Other pieces on exhibit, on the surface at least, might be more open to such charges.)

Besides, Murray has a precedent in the work of Ayanda Mabulu, who is certainly not a racist though one ANC official said he might be even if he is black. Mabulu’s Ngcono ihlwempu kunesibhanxo sesityebi (Better poor than a rich puppet) is a far more realistic work than Murray’s and depicts Zuma with his penis supported by a crutch. Incidentally, that picture too was reproduced in a newspaper, the Cape Times.

It seems the racial outrage has been largely manufactured or thoughtlessly bought into by affronted people who should know better. A similar hysteria prevailed around the DA Student Organisation poster earlier this year.

Not race, but culture underlies the complaint.

Journalists discovered that some people protesting hadn’t even seen the picture and made reference to “that photograph”, a situation not helped by the erroneous referral countless times by news announcers and commentators to the portrait “depicting the president with his genitals exposed”. They are not his genitals.

The 25-year-old Limpopo taxi driver, Louis Mabokela, who succeeded in obliterating the portrait with a tin of black paint, made no reference to race, only to what he felt was obscene.

It is hard to see how a clipart image of what appears to be a circumcised penis can be viewed as pornographic (visual material intended to stimulate sexual excitement).

Besides, the Constitution specifically gives additional license to artists.

Prudishness about grown male nudity may be an issue to the rural region where Zuma has his origins, but it is not particularly African, nor is it universal in African culture where in many tribes adult male public nudity is perfectly common and normal.

It is certainly not a tenet of South Africa’s increasingly urbanised and globalised black culture.

The president’s argument is personal and cultural. It is the same puritanical, verkramp, family-values conservatism found the world over.

That Zuma is distraught by such attacks one does not doubt. I have in person witnessed his voice tremble and his eyes smart when speaking about Zapiro’s “rape of Lady Justice” cartoon.

Since neither charges of obscenity nor race make the argument is there one to be made for the dignity of his person and office?

Compared to the lampooning of slick-willy Bill Clinton and “Il Cavaliere” Silvio Berlusconi our own licentious president has by and large been let off light. His polygamy ceased to be an issue a while back.

Nor has he suffered bold, public attacks in racial terms comparable to the despicable and blatant racist abuse levelled against President Barack Obama by opposition politicians in that country.

For any president to mobilise the presidency, the government, its spokespeople, and the party to ban an unflattering image of himself is patently wrong precisely because he is the president with all the clout and intimidating power that office brings with it.

Just as one should be free to burn the flag, so people have the right to object to the portrait, to protest, to picket the gallery, and even burn effigies of the artist. But to ban a work because it censures the leader would be wholly undemocratic.

Censorship is never to be taken lightly. Even laws on hate speech (those broader than direct incitement) are proving to have harmful side-effects in the South African context no matter how well-intentioned.

Openness will have to go hand in hand with tolerance if the country is to make any progress on its divisions.

There may be those among us who would prefer to live in North Korea or in the fairy tale land where the emperor had no clothes. But those braying now for the dignity of Zuma might pause to consider on which side of the law they’d have found themselves at the time of Polokwane had Thabo Mbeki achieved the sacrosanct status for the president that Zuma now seeks.

Freedom and art
Murray is accused of abusing his freedom. Some believe that as a white-skinned person Murray should exercise humility and shut up; that given our history, whites in general should realise it is no longer their place to comment.

But we are not free, if our freedom exists only by virtue of the benevolence of a ruler. And if one set of South Africans is not free, as it was in the past, then no South African is truly free.

Murray has certainly pushed the envelope. It is an insensitive work, and there is rich irony in the fact that many of the downtrodden masses on whose behalf he has purportedly taken up the cudgels against government are deeply offended by his methods.

But artists are seldom thanked for lancing boils and letting the pus out; they usually get diagnosed as being boils themselves that need to be lanced or like all good cartoonists stoned to death. So Murray was called a pervert and a sadist. A letter to the M&G sickeningly suggested he be tortured. Murray is now in hiding, fearing for his family.

Many in the public have little conception of art and entertain kitsch ideas about what art is; that artists should be meek and make pretty pictures; or be employed by government in some dull enterprise of sham nation building.

Responses to Murray’s work have been simplistic and literal even among journalists and commentators. Art does not necessarily have an opinion. It can only alter the way the president is seen if it is held to be true. It does not seem to occur to Murray’s critics that as spectators they are free to disagree with the work without having to deface it.

As the controversy progressed, as the people were roused, crowds toyi-toyied, calls made for boycotting City Press, it became clear that it was perhaps never about the artwork, but a political strategy that has everything to do with Mangaung and Zuma’s re-election.

The grounds for approaching the court are scant. The president could have threatened a defamation case as he has done against Zapiro. Why the change in tactic?

Because Zuma is employing an opportunistic strategy, the very same that worked so well in the rape case in the run up to Polokwane, and in the Nicholson judgment. He is investing the body of the president with the pain and suffering, the victimisation, and the sense of injustice felt by the majority.

It is an opportunity to mobilize his support, to intimidate his critics in the way that race is generally used by the ANC to mask corruption and venality. It is about vilifying the media; making the judiciary look reactionary; casting the Constitution as alien and hostile to African culture.

An advocate’s tears
No wonder Zuma’s advocate Gcina Malindi broke down in tears in court. As a former activist, he said his emotional investment in the case got the better of him. It is hard enough to stand up to such a hostile grilling by three judges, worse when in the glare of television cameras.

But at some point the ground must have given under him; a realisation that there was no case to be made for an interdict against a painting that no longer existed; for a ban on an image that is now across the world beyond the court’s jurisdiction in innumerable publications from The Economist to the Zimbabwe Mail; that there is no objective legal basis to classify the picture as racist; that under our laws there is no special protection for the president, but in fact less. And ultimately the utter futility of his argument, for the removal of a picture that will change nothing.

Government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi was immediately, cynically and unfeelingly critical of for not broadcasting Malindi’s breakdown even as the court sought sympathetically to protect the advocate from humiliation by restricting the broadcast of his emotional outburst.

Zuma enjoys power and privilege well beyond the reach of even the wealthiest South Africans. Out of this whole saga, the most poignant image we are left with is from television, of the taxi driver, Mabokela, beneath the portrait he had vandalised in the vain hope of salvaging the image of his president; headbutted and thrown to the ground, handcuffed with plastic ties. Here is a young man suffering the kind of indignity and humiliation perpetuated on ordinary black South Africans daily with impunity. No blue-light brigades; no presidential jets; no bodyguards for him. And banning art certainly won’t change that.

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Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary...

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