A Spear to the Heart of South Africa


Published: June 5, 2012

DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA — Nearly two decades after the demise of apartheid in South Africa, symbolized by snaking queues of first-time voters outside polling stations in 1994 and Desmond Tutu’s “Rainbow Nation” imagery, a satirical painting by a (white) artist of (black) President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed has also uncovered how deep social and racial schisms remain.
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On May 10, an exhibition of works by Brett Murray opened at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. Murray’s earlier satirical work mocked apartheid’s racist leaders and explored identity and culture. But his focus has turned to South Africa’s black leaders, corruption and nepotism.
One of the paintings, “The Spear,” depicted Zuma in the pose of Lenin on a famous Soviet poster, but with Zuma’s face and his genitals revealed — a reference to the president’s rape case (he was acquitted) and his many wives, a Zulu tradition.

All hell broke loose.

Three people were arrested at the gallery — a young black man and a middle-aged white man for defacing the painting, separately and for different reasons, and a security guard for assault while restraining the black defacer.

The leader of the Shembe Church, which has millions of supporters, called for Murray to be stoned to death. Protesters marched on the gallery. Leaders of the governing African National Congress (A.N.C.) went to court to try and get the painting removed and called for a boycott of a newspaper that published the painting on its Web site. The gallery later took the painting down, as did the Web site.

“Mission accomplished, Comrades,” declared the A.N.C. secretary general, Gwede Mantashe.

The controversy is now dying down. But along with relief has come disquiet that the powder-keg issues it raised, notably around race, have been brushed aside and could explode — more dangerously — down the line. Very little is clear-cut in this complex, transforming society, where black and white, bitterly divided under apartheid, rub shoulders, mostly amicably, every day.

The deluge of responses to “The Spear” in radio talk shows and social and print media showed public opinion divided along various lines and within racial groups. Many whites found the painting offensive; many blacks defended its value as a work of art. And visa versa.

The debate was primarily framed as freedom of expression versus the right to dignity, both principles enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution. Many argued that given the country’s harsh history and raw racial sensitivities, dignity should trump free expression. Others saw the issue being cynically used to harness black anger into political support for Zuma, whose chances of a second term are shaky.

Murray said in a court affidavit that he had been active in the anti-apartheid movement, that he was a former A.N.C. supporter who felt betrayed by heroes who had abandoned ideals for expedience. He said his work “is a metaphor for power, greed and patriarchy.”

But as Steven Friedman, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy in Johannesburg and a columnist for Business Day, wrote: “In the midst of this unappealing spectacle, something important is emerging that requires urgent attention.” Black South Africans had consistently seen the painting “as yet another example of the contempt in which they believe they are held by white people,” he said.

A commentator in the Daily Maverick, Aubrey Masango, by contrast, argued that satire speaks to a small but educated, wealthier and influential audience of all races that presents a real political threat to a governing elite that is failing to solve South Africa’s deep socio-economic problems. Understanding this, Mazango wrote, South Africa’s rulers “will hijack misinformed ideas of cultural identity and manipulate the real economic discomfort of the masses to generate sympathy.”

From another perspective, Blade Nzimande, the minister of higher education and leader of the Communist Party, said the work was a sign that racist whites viewed the A.N.C.’s offer of reconciliation and a nonracial society as a weakness.

Jonathan Jansen, a (black) public intellectual and vice chancellor of the Free State, depicted reactions to the painting as a clash of ideology, only peripherally about race. Using a boxing analogy, he situated, in one corner, liberals (mostly English-speaking whites) schooled in seeing criticism and protest “as normative, even vital, in building and sustaining a democratic society.” In the other corner were black and white conservatives, “often religious people who find the public display of a penis to be a direct attack on Christian sensibilities.”

“I cannot think of a more necessary dialogue that must take place than between these two hard-line positions, but this being South Africa, heat overcomes light,” wrote Jansen. “Both corners in their rigid self-righteousness boxed the living daylights out of each other as they came flying out of their corners in this bloody fight.”

In all these differing interpretations, there is one area of agreement: that the saga of “The Spear” goes to the heart of the tensions that still run deep in South Africa.

If Murray meant his painting to make a statement about South Africa, he certainly succeeded, though in a far different way than he had in mind.

Karen MacGregor is a South African journalist.