Feature

South Africa: A painting of the president’s privates

Few people knew about Brett Murray’s painting The Spear until President Zuma’s party issued a denunciation.

President Jacob Zuma should have ignored the insult, said Phylicia Oppelt in the Sunday Times (South Africa). But by overreacting, he’s sent half of South Africa to go look at the painting depicting him with his penis hanging out of his pants. Few people knew about artist Brett Murray’s painting The Spear until Zuma’s ruling African National Congress party issued a thunderous denunciation, and threatened legal action against the painter and his Johannesburg gallery. “Of course this alerted the whole world and sent all of us scurrying” downtown to see the painting; this week, two masked men were detained after defacing it. The cartoonish painting—a political commentary—shows Zuma posed like Lenin, with his naked genitals dangling from his pants. The image has sparked a nationwide discussion about respect for the presidency, freedom of expression, and the lingering, insulting stereotype of the black man as “humping, predatory sexual beast.”

Such an image would be an insult indeed applied to a generic black man, said Mondli Makhanya, also in the Times. But frankly, “our president is a stallion,” and his sexual escapades have been public since before his election. During his 2006 trial, when he was accused of raping a friend’s daughter—the sex was ruled consensual and he was acquitted—Zuma treated us all to lurid details of how he was turned on by the woman’s dress and how he made sure to shower after sex because he believed that would protect him from contracting HIV. This is a 70-year-old man with four wives, the latest of whom he married in April, and at least 20 children. Obviously, he “unzips a lot and is proud of it.” As long as Zuma is president, “his salacious side will matter more than his contribution to governance.”

But doesn’t everyone, even an indiscreet president, have a “right to dignity?” asked The New Age in an editorial. Are we supposed to put up with any kind of ridicule as long as it is painted and therefore protected as art? Sure, South Africa’s Constitution provides for free expression. But let’s not forget that we are Africans. Doesn’t it matter that, “traditionally, black people do not mock or dehumanize their elders in this way?” And even if Zuma can take it, what about his family? His adult daughters have put out a statement expressing how humiliated and upset they are by the painting.

“It’s only art, for heaven’s sake,” said the Cape Town Cape Times. Zuma ought to just laugh it off. That he has chosen to respond with a lawsuit is “evidence of a disturbing drift toward authoritarian tendencies.” And he’s shown them before. He already has a lawsuit going against the nation’s most famous political cartoonist over a 2010 image he found insulting. It’s a worrying trend, said Gareth van Onselen in Inside-Politics.org. Only “totalitarian states” try to regulate opinion about their leaders. Zuma doesn’t understand that you can’t demand respect; it must be earned. All you can demand is silence and obsequiousness. And that is “the ambit of bullies,” not statesmen.

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