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ANC itself un-African in the way it handled art furore.

Accusing Brett Murray’s exhibition of racism — they hate us, shouted Gwede Mantashe on TV — and specifically that it is un-African, is opportunistic bad faith of the highest order.


Published: 2012/05/28

I DRIVE past the Goodman Gallery every evening on my way home, and when I first saw Brett Murray’s art on display in the large windows that look on to the busy intersection of Jan Smuts Avenue and Glenhove Road, I thought, here comes trouble.

I have to confess I was shocked. Illuminated against the dark night were the letters in gold, in a style one would expect to find in a casino, one of the many in and around Johannesburg. “Biko is dead,” they read, and this statement was clearly not in mourning or celebration.

But the 108-million internet-hit furore, as we all know, was not about the possible desecration in a public manner of an icon of identity and symbol incarnate of black assertion, Steve Biko, but about the genitals of a much lesser man, Jacob Zuma .

Make no mistake. The Spear is insulting, and one should look beyond the fact that Zuma & Co just added to the “virality” of the image on the worldwide web by going to court. In their founding affidavit, they raised the valid, if rather disingenuous point that a rape victim should not be discouraged to seek redress merely because of the public scrutiny.

The cynicism apart of using such arguments when Zuma himself has been accused of rape or has been guilty at least of extramarital sex, he is entitled to have his day in court. Only he can be the judge of whether the wounds of the insult can be dressed by an expression of outrage in stuffy, legalistic language.

But the bigger, more fascinating story is the way the outrage has been projected, particularly with the African National Congress (ANC) playing the race card so brazenly. I am not a particular fan of Murray’s work, since he exposes himself to charges of a kind of liberalistic bullying, and the money-making pot calling the money-making kettle black.

But accusing the exhibition of racism — they hate us, shouted Gwede Mantashe on TV — and specifically that it is un-African, is opportunistic bad faith of the highest order. Why then did they not utter a squeak of indignation over the “Biko is dead” painting? Or did nobody in Luthuli House bother to visit the exhibition?

In fact, this lack of response to the Biko painting and the cult of leadership-type focus on Zuma, shows clearly and forcefully, that, indeed, Biko is dead. And it is true — Biko’s legacy, black consciousness, does not seem to exist anymore, unless you want to see it in the degenerate form of members of the black bourgeoisie demanding special treatment from the black economic empowerment dispensation.

In urban areas little is to be seen of any black consciousness lifestyle. As in the gold lettering, our way of living is the Americanised, consumerised version centred on conformist mall shopping, and our fun and games are often at casinos such as those at the ludicrous Montecasino, Gold Reef City or Emperors Palace.

Some foreigners find it very peculiar how we South Africans, whites included, try so hard to live more American or European lives than the Americans or Europeans themselves.

The lettering in the Biko painting also hints at Russian script — any remnants of black consciousness are being overruled and overwhelmed by the socialist jargon spouting from ANC cadres.

Apart from all this, t o say insulting leaders is un-African shows a lack of knowledge of African cultures. Denigrating traditional leaders to the point of parading them in the streets, sometimes stripped of their clothing and royal regalia, when they abuse their power, is embedded in tribal cultures across Africa. The latest report of such an event was by the Guardian in 2003 from Nigeria.

One of the first phenomena after the democratisation of Ghana when the former military leader Jerry Rawlings stepped aside as military leader, were the many satirical theatre shows that openly made fun of him. In Mali it is part of inaugural rituals for new leaders to undergo periods of public deprecation.

It could be that the ANC’s real fear was that Zuma would be embarrassed at the African diaspora conference that happened in the same week as the court case. South African leaders are sometimes mocked by their counterparts on the continent for their soft treatment of critics. Perhaps the ANC means with “un-African” that it is not the way of Robert Mugabe, Teodoro Obiang, Omar al-Bashir, Yoweri Museveni and other dictators who regularly murder, torture and imprison those who make fun of them.

If this is so, we shall need a lot more campaigns like Brett Murray’s to help safeguard SA’s hard-won democracy.

• Pienaar is a Business Day sub-editor and writes the blog Continental Drift.