The (white?) washing of The Spear'
I have been following the ongoing controversy in South Africa over the painting titled ‘The Spear’ with fascination. As it has developed, it has raised a whole host of very important and interesting questions with ramifications far beyond the obvious.
For those readers unlucky enough to have missed the story, I shall briefly re-cap it: A South African artist, Brett Murray, painted a portrait of Jacob Zuma standing proudly with his manhood (also standing proudly) on display.
Jacob Zuma, although he could have successfully ignored it, expressed himself to be offended, violated and humiliated and took legal action. Pretty straightforward so far, but there are complicating factors; Murray is white, Zuma is black, raising the spectre of lingering racism in post-Apartheid South Africa. And then there is the fact that Jacob Zuma happens to be the President of South Africa. As a result there was a significant reaction from the public, which raised another raft of interesting questions about the various cultural approaches to leadership and respect and the legal separation between the individual and the office-holder. All good so far, but then along come two other individuals, a white lecturer and a black taxi-driver, to take the whole episode to another level.
I find it to be a positive sign that in the new South Africa a white man and a black man could arrive at the same point in time, at the same place, on the same mission – to deface ‘The Spear’ - and yet have no clue of the other’s existence. In a comedic scene captured by an e-TV news crew filming the painting, Barend la Grange whipped out a pot of red paint and attempted to erase the most offensive part of the portrait.
One of the people standing by tackled him, horrified that he was vandalising what was, after all, a piece of art being displayed in a public gallery. While everyone else was distra-cted by the lecturer being overpowered, Louis Makobela, took the opportunity to permanently blot out the offending object with a big pot of black paint.
They couldn’t have timed it better if they had planned it in advance, which, it turned out, they hadn’t. Just in case the matter wasn’t complicated enough, a (black) security guard beat up the taxi-driver, who was in the process of surrendering peacefully, but not the lecturer.
All three ended up in custody. Although the thought of vandalising a piece of art makes me shudder, I think the lecturer actually played a very vital role and accomplished his stated mission of ‘deracialising’ the controversy, thus allowing the more important subjects of perceptions of leadership, invasion of privacy and freedom of expression to be debated as well as highlighting the legal framework in this context and its suitability to the occasion. Without the taxi-driver, though, the lecturer’s defacement would have been dismissed as a stunt, but Makobela’s earnest defence of his President meant the press couldn’t just laugh it off.
It couldn’t have been more perfectly planned and I believe that this whole foolish exercise is actually going to turn out to benefit the nation of South Africa by laying bare these questions. To my mind, the instinctive revulsion that black South Africans, particularly Zulus, would have to this painting are similar to the instinctive revulsion white South Africans had to Zuma’s comments at his rape trial (from which he was acquitted) about women and, of course, the shower story. For them it was a sort of verbal, rather than pictorial, letting it all hang out. Zuma’s attorney is failing to convince the judge that a painting of an individual can be interpreted as an attack on the dignity of the presidency (the painting and title make no reference to Zuma’s status or office, the portrait merely bears his liking).
My prediction is that Zuma will lose the case in which he is defending himself as the president. This means he will give up the opportunity to defend himself as an individual and sue on a personal basis, which I think he could have won. The painting is insulting, after all. But it doesn’t insult the president, just the man, and this is a distinction rarely seen in Africa, where the man and the office are usually conflated.
But I think he wants it that way. In the end Zuma is going to end up in a very strong position; he has nothing to lose and everything to gain. He will be seen at home to be defending the dignity of the office without actually having to set a legal precedent that would be interpreted by foreign investors as a sign that he was centralising power in a democracy and setting himself to become president for life.
Due to the racial issue and this approach, the poor black youth vote will rally back to the mainstream ANC after being shaken so badly by the expulsion of Julius Malema. Malema himself is rendered powerless to insult Zuma now because he has been completely upstaged. Nothing he could say or do could be worse than this. And the courts won’t have to make an internationally embarrassing ruling on freedom of expression, thanks to the efforts of the comedy paint team, since the painting is, essentially, destroyed.
Best of all, the media is now going to have a frenzy chasing it’s tail about the issues of freedom of expression and what can make art offensive or not and completely forget about the president. It’s a funny old world but, if you know how to surf the waves, you always end up on top.
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