You probably know the basic facts by now, but for those that don't, here's the gist: The Goodmans Gallery in Johannesburg recently opened Hail to the Thief II, an exhibition of the work of Cape Town-based artist Brett Murray. The artist is known for his acerbic attacks on abuses of power, corruption and political idiocy, but this exhibition includes a painting titled The Spear, which depicts a stylized Jacob Zuma, the South African president, posed like Soviet leader V.I. Lenin, with his pants unzipped and dick and balls hanging out (the image above is cropped). The artist said the painting is "an attempt at humorous satire of political power and patriarchy within the context of other artworks in the exhibition."
Cue major storm of outrage, with opinions divided along racial lines. The ANC and its political allies said the painting was racist and called for it to be removed. "We have not outgrown racism in our 18 years [of democracy]", said ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, arguing that the painting proved black people were still regarded as objects in South Africa. The ANC also called on all South Africans to defend the President (to those of a cynical bent, an act of opportunism), and seemed to suggest that this is an insult to the entire continent of Africa, which is definitely overstating the case. Sorry, but Jacob Zuma's private parts do not equate to Africa. Meanwhile, many black South Africans are furious at the insensitivity of the artist, who is white, and the gallery, and see it as disrespectful and insulting to Zuma's dignity.
In the context of South Africa's history, it is insensitive. How many black men were required to strip for white men during the apartheid years, in police stations and torture venues, before being allowed to leave the gold and diamond mines every day, etc.? Those indignities are still fresh in the collective memory of South Africa's black population. It is also disrespectful. Respect for your elders is a strong value in black culture, much more so than in white culture. And as stated in an affidavit from Zuma's children, signed by his daughter, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla. "In our culture," she wrote, "it is abominable to speak of, or even see, the private parts of our parents. … in fact, in our culture, when you wish to insult an opponent, you insult them by referring to the sexual organs of parents. Such an insult often leads to violent conflict between those involved".
For its part, the Freedom of Expression Institute decried the ANC's efforts to suppress the work, while the reaction of the mostly white-owned media amounted to a patronising lecture on free speech, which many black people rightly saw as further proof that white South Africa does not listen to it or believe its values are as worthy of respect as white values.
OK, but racist? I'm not so sure. Borderline, perhaps. Brett Murray made his name as an artist by criticizing the apartheid government and system, the same government and system the ANC fought against and which all of black South Africa suffered under. This doesn't preclude racism, but the charge of outright racism might be overstating the case, and possibly distracts from the criticism embodied by the painting. Can you imagine any artist depicting Obama with his genitals exposed? I can't. But if an Italian artist had done the same for Berlusconi, I don't think many people would have been shocked. So, if Brett Murray had been black, what would the reaction have been? It would probably still have been seen as disrespectful and insulting, and the ANC would still have been pissed off, but perhaps more people would have seen it as valid criticism of Jacob Zuma and the ANC party.
Jacob Zuma was the Deputy President of South Africa before becoming the President of the ruling party, the ANC, and then, in 2009, President of South Africa, and in all that time it's not an exaggeration to say that his personal life has competed with the successes of his party for headlines. He was acquitted of the charges of corruption, but enough came out during the trial to test the loyalty of many South Africans. He was accused of raping the daughter of one of his deceased comrades from the struggle against apartheid. Zuma said the sex was consensual. His alleged victim was an AIDS activist who was known to be HIV positive, and during the trial Jacob Zuma, who confessed to not using a condom, said he took a shower after sex in order to reduce the risk of being infected, confusing the safe sex message being sent out by health workers and activists trying to combat the country's serious HIV problem.
He had a love-child with a friend's daughter when he was already married. In fact, he's been married six times, and is currently married to four different women. True, there is a tradition of polygamy within certain sub-cultures of South Africa, for instance among the Bantu peoples and Islamic South Africans, which is why it is recognised under customary law, but it is, strictly speaking, illegal. People generally want their president to represent them all, so you can see how this one issue would be a problem for some, and it was so during the 2009 election.
Everyone in South Africa knows all this and more, so if a black artist had painted The Spear, would people have seen it as valid criticism of someone whose conduct has often been somewhat less than dignified or presidential, and of a party that had generally failed to deliver (the country's wealth gap remains one of the widest in the world, and this also is largely along racial lines, its public education system is deteriorating, service delivery is getting worse, and I know enough South Africans who are frustrated with the unsatisfactory regulation of the country's mobile telephony and internet industry, which has resulted in ridiculously high costs for everyone)? I think so. What do you think?
This whole issue is still a hot topic in South Africa, and a divisive one, but so long as no one dies, it might one day come to be seen as having caused more good than harm because it has brought to light the gap in understanding and perceptions between blacks and whites in South Africa, and has got people talking about it. If Stephen Grootes, writing in Business Day yesterday, is right, the saga has already started a process of educating white South Africa about their conscious or sub-conscious feelings of condescension towards black South Africa, and about black culture and values.
"The Spear", after the acts of art criticism
While the debate was raging, two men, one black, one white, but acting alone and spontaneously, defaced The Spear.
The white guy, Barend la Grange, painted an X over Zuma's face and one over his genitals, and said he did it to defuse a situation that could have turned into a race war. It really has been that tense. Immediately after he did his thing, a black guy, Lowie Mabokela, a taxi driver who had driven from to Johannesburg specifically to see the painting, smeared black paint over it. More about why they did it here.
You can see above how the white guy was treated in comparison to the black guy. In fact, it was only after Iman Rapetti, a television anchor who was present when all this was happening, pointed out that it was La Grange who had started it, that he too was arrested, but even so he was treated courteously. It is a courtesy white people anywhere in Africa can generally expect, but something black people can't, not unless they look rich.
Lowie Mabokela brought assault charges against the security guard, who was subsequently arrested.
When I saw this, I couldn't help but be reminded of the black slaves in America who were assigned to work in the house rather than the fields and given some authority over the field slaves. Some of the house slaves aped the authoritarian behaviour of their "owners" when dealing with the field slaves, possibly to show that they had more in common with their masters than with the field slaves. If the guard was merely trying to demonstrate his dedication to the job, why didn't he do anything to the white guy?
My colleague pointed out in the article about self-esteem and race in Nigeria that the Nigerians who defer to white people tend to be the ones who've never experienced anti-black racism or discrimination because they've never lived in Europe or America. The security guard looks old enough to have been more than a toddler when the racist system of apartheid was in place in South Africa, so what's his excuse? I can only hope it's that he wasn't in the room when the white guy was doing his thing, because the other explanation is further demonstration of how far many of us remain from truly feeling that black people and white people are of equal worth and equally deserving of respect and courtesy. If the continent could afford it, I think many of us could do with a few years of psychotherapy on this matter alone.