Courtesy of

David Smith in Cape Town, Thursday 24 May 2012

Zuma portrait court case reopens South Africa’s wounds from apartheid era. To its supporters, the painting is about free expression but to the ANC, it is a violation of the president’s dignity – and racist.

A visitor photographs a painting of South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, at an exhibition in Johannesburg, before the picture was vandalised. Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
One of the most heated debates in South Africa’s recent political history reached a moment of farce today when three high court judges were asked to adjudicate on whether to ban a portrait of the president with his penis exposed.

The work, The Spear, by Brett Murray, unleashed a brouhaha that has hogged headlines for more than a week in South Africa and earned that inexhaustible accolade “painting-gate”. It was not that it showed President Jacob Zuma in a pose mimicking Soviet-era propaganda portrayals of Lenin – chest thrust out, arm aloft, coat-tail flowing in the wind – that riled the ruling African National Congress (ANC). It was, rather, the addition of his genitalia.

The ANC sounded the klaxons and leapt to battle stations, denouncing the painting as rude, disgusting and racist. Today it took the matter to a regional high court in Johannesburg, arguing that the image violated Zuma’s constitutional right to dignity. It also demanded that the City Press newspaper remove a photo of The Spear from its website.

Zuma, 70, is a Zulu polygamist who has married six times, and has four current wives and 21 children. He has admitted fathering one child out of wedlock in 2010 and once stood trial for and was acquitted of rape. In an affidavit, he stated: “The portrait depicts me in a manner that suggests I am a philanderer, a womaniser and one with no respect.”

The gallery and the artist, Brett Murray, counter that freedom of expression, also protected by the constitution, is at stake.

The hearing was broadcast live on national television. ANC leaders were present, along with several of Zuma’s children, who have joined their father in the legal challenge.


Outside the courthouse, hundreds of ANC supporters danced and sang, following a call by the party for “all South Africans to defend the president”.

As arguments began, the judges closely questioned Zuma’s lawyer, Gcina Malindi, on points of law, race, art and the limits of their ability to control publication on the internet. Malindi argued that the court should hear not just the opinions of a “super class” of art experts but how the painting was likely to be seen by the country’s black majority, denied education under the apartheid system.

Malindi, who is black, said that many black people still lived in poverty after the end of apartheid in 1994. He then broke down in tears when a judge asked him how the court could halt viewing of an image widely distributed on the internet. His colleagues rushed to put their arms around his shoulders.

Jackson Mthembu, an ANC spokesman, described Malindi as a leading member of the anti-apartheid movement, who had been tortured for his activities. “That’s why this is emotional,” he said.

The painting went on show at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg earlier this month and came to the ANC’s attention a week later, after local media reported that it had been sold to an anonymous buyer. It would probably have gone unnoticed but for the ANC’s declaration of war.

The ANC, which in the past has been criticised for remaining silent in the face of corruption, its own people dying from Aids, and human rights violations in Zimbabwe, whipped up opposition to The Spear, putting a logo on its website homepage that says: “President Zuma has a right to human dignity and privacy.”

The name of the painting also evokes the old armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (which translates as “Spear of the Nation”) as well as cruder analogies.

The case is being fought over a work that essentially no longer exists. On Tuesday the painting was defaced by a white businessman – peacefully taken into custody by security guards – and a black taxi driver, who was head-butted and body-slammed by a guard. The businessman claims he was making an artistic statement of his own, critiquing both the ANC and Murray, while the taxi driver has laid an assault charge against the guard.

The Spear saga has pushed all the buttons that inflame emotions and headlines in South Africa’s national discourse. The ANC, backed by trade unions, the Young Communist League and some black commentators, has invoked the rhetoric of the anti-apartheid movement, saying the work symbolises lingering racial oppression – still a defining prism for much public debate here.


Gwede Mantashe, ANC secretary-general, told Reuters last week: “From where I am sitting, that picture is racist. It is disrespectful. It is crude and it is rude. The more black South Africans forgive and forget, the more they get a kick in the teeth.”

Murray is far from the first white person to criticise the ANC and be labelled a racist. He is from Cape Town, often seen as the country’s last bastion of white privilege. But on Wednesday the Times of South Africa devoted its front page to photos of the young Murray wearing an ANC T-shirt and examples of his work that used to lampoon the white minority regime, under the sarcastic headline: “Murray, the ‘racist’”.

Murray’s defenders say a painting of Nelson Mandela with his penis exposed is unlikely. Respect is earned, they say, and Zuma has not done so, sexually or politically. Two black commentators, Mondli Makhanya and Justice Malala, have argued that say Zuma has defined himself by his sexual lifestyle. Malala wrote in the Guardian: “He has done more to provide fodder for racist stereotypes than any black South African has done.”

Politically, there is a widespread perception that Zuma is treading water and needs a headline-grabbing diversion from South Africa’s real crises: corruption, the failure to deliver services, and growing inequality. The ANC is said to be riven by factions and insecurities, and in need of a common enemy to rally against.

Sipho Hlongwane, a columnist for the Daily Maverick, argued: “As things stand, they have reason to thank the artist for giving them a unique opportunity to further secure their core voting constituency from the further encroachment by the liberal infidels.”

The judges called a recess after the emotional display by Zuma’s lawyer on Thursday. After a break of more than two hours, they agreed to resume at a later date. As the febrile arguments raged on the internet, some observers may have been tempted to paraphrase Henry Kissinger: the politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.