‘We were viciously played’

August 14 2012

Bloemfontein - The reactions to the controversial Spear painting of President Jacob Zuma have shown that South Africa has a legacy its citizens must understand better, said Nic Dawes, editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, on Monday.

South Africans must leave space to handle the country’s past, new ideas and differences, he said.

Dawes was taking part in a “Beyond The Spear” panel discussion at the University of the Free State on the meaning of democracy, dissent and dignity.

The controversial painting The Spear by Brett Murray depicted President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed.

Murray reworked a Russian propaganda poster of Marxist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin for his exhibition Hail To The Thief II at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.

The painting created a storm over freedom of expression in art, the dignity of Zuma and even claims of racism.

Dawes said the painting also brought up questions of how South Africans live and deal with real pain.

“South Africa must live with its past,” said Dawes, but it must leave space to handle it.

“The Spear debate was painful.”

He said the debate should now be how to preserve space for the country’s ghosts and how its citizens could gain the resilience to deal with it.

UFS Rector Jonathan Jansen said it was guaranteed that more Spear-type moments would rise in South Africa.

“We need to understand it, what happened and know how to handle future Spear-type moments,” Jansen said.

The controversy intensified after City Press editor Ferial Haffajee would not remove a photo of the painting from her newspaper’s website. Haffajee said the ANC would argue later this year that the song Shoot The Boer - a struggle-ear war chant - was art in court.

The argument was the song was not meant to harm or inflame, but part of a rich cultural heritage. When it was sung today, it was in symbol, not in threat.

“The Spear was art too. Symbol, not threat,” she said, adding that it was part of a rich cultural heritage of protest art.

Political commentator Justice Malala said the public should not allow politicians to hijack real debates for their own purposes.

“A (national) debate was taken away to achieve narrow ends. We lost the real debate somewhere in the process.”

Max du Preez, a well-known political columnist, said the two-week public Spear debate was a giant leap for nation-building.

“In a short period we learned more of ourselves as a country than in the two years before.”

Du Preez said it also showed that South African politicians were “utterly opportunistic and reckless”.

The politicians would do virtually anything, including messing with the country’s stability, to further their own interests.

“From now on we need to be a nation far more alert, far more cynical about our politicians.”

He said the Zuma painting was rude and disrespectful. “It was meant to be, it was not honouring him,” he said, adding it was legitimate political comment.

The panel was in agreement that the ANC had hijacked the Spear incident to further Zuma’s campaign towards Mangaung.

“We were viciously played,” said Haffajee. “I would not take down that image knowing what I do now.”

She said the incident had shown freedom could be easily and quickly undermined and that the country should be extremely vigilant to protect it.