How a painting divided a nation


Ferial Haffajee

Dear Duduzile,

My mum often says: “You’re your father’s child.” This could be because I love dancing or because I am soft and like speaking to strangers; or it could be about a fiercely stubborn streak I’ve inherited or my belief in the cure-all quality of Vicks. All things I’ve learnt from my beloved late father.

I watched you alongside your dad during his trial and saw your keen love for him. In happier times, at your wedding and other occasions, I can see that you share his joie de vivre with your beautiful smile and easy laugh.

So I feel your pain at Brett Murray’s work. I understand that what is a work of satire to me is a portrait of pain to you. I understand the impact on your little brothers and sisters, who may face teasing at school. Playground cruelty leaves deep scars. And if they and your dad saw the work in our pages and it caused harm, then I apologise from the bottom of my heart.

Although there is a commonly felt love for good and present fathers, our dads are different. Mine was a citizen, yours is the first citizen, the president. This does not mean he has no personal capacity right to dignity or that he does not have feelings.

In our various meetings with him, he has come across as a fundamentally human and humane person. It is these qualities that won him pole position at the watershed conference in Polokwane in 2007.

In addition to being your dad, he is president in a country with a Constitution that explicitly enshrines, and therefore encourages free speech and freedom of creative expression. This means his actions are continually under national scrutiny and most of that scrutiny is fair scrutiny or reportage for the record. The president did this. Or that. Said this. Or that. I’m not sure what your view is, but I don’t think he faces a constantly hostile media.

He is the subject of cartoonists, as are all presidents in democracies with thriving media. I’m sure you laugh, too. And sometimes you must cry. Like this time.

I am sad to say, it’s the price of being the first daughter.

I hear (and want to write about) a growing view that you are a fine businesswoman who will soon rival Isabel dos Santos (Africa’s richest woman and the daughter of Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos) in your acumen for the entrepreneurial. This is the nice part of being a first daughter – the access to networks and opportunities that can place you ahead of the pack.

When I read your letter to the court, I could also understand how you and your siblings must have felt when the television played blow-by-blow accounts of your dad’s intimate relations with the young woman in the rape charge, of which he was subsequently acquitted.

It must have been equally painful to read of his relationship with Sonono Khoza the last time his personal life became an issue of public interest.

I know you love him, but our president’s administration has not always been easy or right, and I guess this is what Murray is alluding to in his entire exhibition, which we reviewed as a whole. We did not pick out The Spear for particular sensational effect, Duduzile.

Did Murray go too far in The Spear?

Much of the nation thinks so, though I do not. I grew up suckled on the protest art of the liberation movement and this work is its logical progeny. Would I publish the image again knowing what I do now? Probably not. But here’s the rub. I would not do so because he is hurt or because you are hurt. That, for me, is the price tag of high office. Presidents deserve a personal dignity, though their office does not have the right. But to quote Tselane Tambo, leaders have to inspire the reverence they seek.

I would think 10 times before publishing because this week has caused me to pause and think about our nation.

Our common national dignity is a paper-thin one; a chimera in parts. It is in the process of being knitted
and the media holds at least one knitting needle.

The exposure of black genitalia is still a raw and festering wound – its resurrection in any form a painful flashback to the various and many indignities inflicted on the black body from colonialism to its later manifestation as apartheid.

Black bodies carted away as curiosities, as samples for mad experiments; later as mine workers made to parade naked to ensure they had hidden no gold.

I know from thoughtful scribes such as S’thembiso Msomi in The Times, among others, that these indignities are not erased in a short 18 years and that to assume so is to re-examine how I edit as a newly privileged person based in Johannesburg.

I know too that my laissez-faire attitude to life and to nudity is not the norm, and that many City Press readers didn’t want us to publish the work. So, we’ve all learnt sharp lessons in this week of The Spear. I am a South African who came of age in the great era of peace-making and negotiation from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s when the Constitution was signed. I know how we are a country that pulls itself from the brink through finding each other and holding on. It is how we made this nation and the instinct to find a solution of peace was strong in my soul.

Perhaps, I said to a colleague, we could place a strategic flower (or a dove) on a part of The Spear and allow online readers to click on it to get into a gallery filled with articles on the lessons of The Spear. There are reflections aplenty.

As I was sitting watching TV on Thursday and pondering what I would say in this letter to you, and what I would do to show my lessons learnt, I nearly fell off my chair as I heard Jackson Mthembu chanting “Don’t buy City Press, don’t buy!” and “Phantsi, City Press, Phantsi!” It felt as if I was dreaming or in a nightmare.

Earlier that day, Duduzile, SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande cut through a reputation I try to burnish with good practice by saying I was duplicitous in my treatment of the Murray work versus my treatment of a cartoon by a Danish artist depicting Muhammad.

Was I? I apologised for the hurt and offence we had caused as I have done now. At the time, I wrote: “We remain a nation in the making; we are setting our norms and standards; defining our rights and responsibilities. Freedom of speech is not absolute, but it will take negotiation to decide where the dividing line lies. What should be beyond dispute is that this line cannot be drawn with the barrel of the gun.” Or by the rough kick of a jackboot.

I’m sorry that the militant boycott call by the ANC made me dig in my heels and not find the South African solution.

The party your father grew up in is no longer the same. I knew it to be a party of ideas, debate and of reaching out. Not a soul from its midst has picked up a phone to City Press, though they claim there was engagement before the call for society at large to boycott us. My biggest lesson this week is that the ANC no longer leads; it can no longer be trusted to pull us back from the brink as it did when Chris Hani died and the nation lay on the edge of a precipice.

Now I see the party led by men who will push us over the edge if it is to pursue their own interests
and ambitions. The boycott is a useful rallying call to restart their flagging campaign.

It saddens me that your dad is not playing a role in stopping them and providing the leadership we so sorely need to stop the spears we keep jabbing at each other. This national pain is greater than our individual hurts, I know.

I’d like to play my role, but if I respond to fear, insult, demands to remove an item of journalism, threats and intimidation, then what role will I be playing to make ours the best possible world for your little brothers and sisters, and all the children for whom we are making a future?

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