The orgiastic furore surrounding the depiction of President Jacob Zuma’s genitalia in an infamous painting, The Spear, is yet to reach a climax in the public square. The painting has power for one reason, and one reason alone: it crystallised a public narrative in pictorial form.
As I have written here before, sex is controversially stitched into the nation’s never-ending story of race, rage, gender stereotyping, prejudice and stigma.
Zuma’s multiple cockups (British definition of doing things badly), ranging from when he said that a Zulu man does not leave a woman in a state of arousal to his admission that he had taken a shower to wash off the HIV virus, wrote his own public narrative. For the satirist, the president’s utterings are a “gift which keeps on giving”.
Luthuli House’s response to the painting was entirely predictable, unwittingly conferring greater power on the painting. I assume if Zuma was painted like Captain America or Superman, Brett Murray would have been bestowed with the Order of Mapungubwe rather than being slapped with a lawsuit.
A part of me, however, is empathetic to the president. I know the customs of the region Zuma comes from well. It is a corner of the nation where, on the negative side, the writ of the amaKhosi (traditional leaders) runs wide in a patriarchal-based society. It is a culture that recently reintroduced the repugnant practice of virginity testing (for girls only, not boys). On the positive side, it is a place that truly cherishes the elderly, venerates the wise, respects the regulatory value of tradition, and understands the importance of institutional memories by the telling and retelling of clan narratives.
Yet while this painting will be deeply distressing to Zuma, his family and community, he will not be offered any clemency. The president is much more than a leader of a traditional community. He is the first citizen of a modern state with a great arts scene that has produced some of the world’s best political satire from Zapiro to Pieter-Dirk Uys.
Zuma will not be the first elderly South African leader to learn that respect is no longer axiomatic in an age which no longer prizes deference. ‘Daylight’ was ‘let in on magic’, to invert Bagehot’s elegant expression of deference, a long time ago.
To draw a direct contrast with the Zuma picture, go and look at some cartoons of Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky circus in 1998. You will notice how Clinton’s nose appears to be taking the form of another part of his anatomy that may have been inspired by evidence given by the former intern. The difference between them and The Spear may be shades of subtlety.
Around the same time, Britain’s former prime minister, John Major, was deeply hurt by Alastair Campbell’s observation as a reporter – on a plane somewhere mid-Atlantic – that Major wore his shirt tucked into his underpants. Steve Bell’s cartoon of Major in the Guardian , wearing his underpants on the outside of his trousers, became the most famous satirical image of the beleaguered prime minister. This mildest and kindest of men still loathes Campbell who became famous as Tony Blair’s Svengali.
Like all good satire, it hurt for one simple reason: it hits the bull’s eye. But what about when satire just latches onto a person’s appearance, and not character?
I remember the horror, as a lanky and spotty twenty-year-old, of peering out the window of a tour bus in Saint Petersburg and seeing an unsolicited sketch of my side profile being sketched before my very eyes (and I was only a machine operator in a factory!). The street cartoon satirist – ubiquitous in Russian cities in the early 90s – had, I concede, brilliantly captured my prominent ape-like side profile that had rendered me not unlike Bart of The Simpsons fame. Anyway, as the tour bus pulled away, I exacted my revenge. I shoved my hand through the window and grabbed the offending picture from the gesticulating artist and tore it up.
That was twenty years ago.
My point is that for political satirical cartoons to be credible, they generally have to contain an indelible, defining truism that is instantly recognisable to everyone: a gold (or otherwise) nugget about a person’s character.
We know from mistakes that we have made in our personal lives that it can take long to repair them. Although I know little about psychology, I have a nagging feeling that once a perception has set, it can be as hard to expunge as Banquo’s “damned spot”. How much more true must this be of public office bearers?
So to use another well-known working-class British expression, Zuma should ignore the painting and “keep his pecker up”. The Spear is the least of his problems. (Most) things at the moment really are not looking up. He has much to do to convince the nation that he is not a spent force.