While the display of the picture has been defended by City Press and the Goodman Gallery on the grounds of freedom of expression it has been opposed by supporters of Zuman and the ANC by multiple, and often ridiculous, arguments.
We have Zuma himself saying that he was “shocked, and felt personally offended and violated”. I don’t doubt he did and indeed his dignity is important and we will come back to it before the end of this post. The South African Communist Party described it as sadistic. The South African Student Congress called the picture “an attack on African culture” as well as religious morals. And, of course, no South African argument would be complete without at least one person calling racism. Of course racism is just the default stance and there’s absolutely nothing to suggest racism other than that Zuma happens to be Black. But, in a country like South Africa, most people are Black so it would appear then that Whites are racist if they make any political comments. Lastly the ante has been upped when the picture was described not just as insulting to Zuma but insulting to the majority of South Africa.
Strangely enough I would think that some of those problems with the picture are what we should encourage. Maybe it’s an attack to “the very value and moral systems of the majority,” which I don’t believe for a minute, but that is what is necessary for a country. The idea of democracy was an attack the values and moral systems of many people. On that note it’s worth remembering that there are still royal families in South Africa that are afforded leadership purely by birth right. The ideas of equality of races and genders was also an attack to the value and moral systems of many people. Without attacking those systems we are unable to proceed as a society. Even if it’s insulting to Zuma and his supporters let’s not forget this is the same man that has made offensive remarks to homosexuals, as illustrated here. But if we spend all our time answering every one of those arguments we’ll be here all day. Let’s rather examine the painting in terms of our principles of free speech.
1. We – all human beings – must be free and able to express ourselves, and to receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.
At the moment Murray is free to express himself and he has. That is good but, as we can see, that free expression is currently being threatened both in the courts and through the Film and Publication Board. Whether they will make the right decision remains to be seen.
2. We defend the internet and all other forms of communication against illegitimate encroachments by both public and private powers.
There now are powers seeking to encroach on free expression. This is a problem as art has always been there to criticise leaders and advance political goals. Obviously not everyone takes kindly to that criticism but we must defend it for the good of everyone. It is so easy now to get upset while in power but the ANC shouldn’t forget that art was once used to challenge apartheid as well, for example the song Sun City that protested apartheid and which was banned in South Africa.. They must understand that art is not always going to be aligned with their own views, nor should they insist that it is.
3. We require and create open, diverse media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life.
This picture is part of that diverse media. If nothing else this has stimulated discussion in the country. If everything is kept tame and uncontroversial then we will never make a true leap forward. We will be left shuffling our feet with no one willing to rock the boat and say what might need to be said.
4. We speak openly and with civility about all kinds of human difference.
Here we have the first challenge to the painting. Is it civil? It certainly is crude but it’s not pushed in anyone’s face and while it is no doubt offensive to Zuma it isn’t there for no reason. As Liza Essers points out:
The relationship between political power and sexuality is one that has been much discussed in recent times, for example President (Bill) Clinton and Monica Lewinsky; (former International Monetary Fund head) Dominique Strauss-Kahn; and the former prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi.
International leaders aside, Zuma does have six wives and has been on trial for rape before. When all that is considered perhaps it’s not so bad after all. It’s not necessarily even a personal insult. Is nakedness really all that terrible, especially when it’s use here is symbolic?
5. We allow no taboos in the discussion and dissemination of knowledge.
This isn’t really the dissemination of knowledge, although it does appear to have uncovered a taboo.
6. We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation.
Here Brett Murray is absolutely in the clear. The picture, no matter it’s flaws, is not a call for violence of any kind. However there are those that oppose the painting that have not held themselves to the same standards and the owner of the gallery displaying the painting has received death threats.
7. We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief.
8. We are all entitled to a private life but should accept such scrutiny as is in the public interest.
I’m including 7 and 8 together because here I think we need to address both at once. The painting can certainly be seen as disrespectful to Zuma, and it has been, but that would be if you completely ignore the symbolism. When you consider it as symbolism and Zuma as a symbol for the ANC then we can see it’s not necessarily directed at Zuma himself but what he stands for, ie. it is aimed at the beliefs and not the believer. Also important though is that while Zuma should be treated with respect he is also the leader of the ANC and South Africa and so is a public figure. You can not be in such a position and expect to be treated the same as a private citizen. He is the representation of government and criticism of government can be directed at his person too.
9. We should be able to counter slurs on our reputations without stifling legitimate debate.
This brings us back to the court cases which are Zuma’s attempt to counter attacks on his reputation. These should be done without the need to suppress expression. Of course it’s hard to see exactly what attack there was. It was offensive but it didn’t make any claims about the sort of person Zuma was, in any case that has been shown in multiple court cases, but it used him as a symbol. We will have to see if the courts can appreciate symbolism or not.
10. We must be free to challenge all limits to free expression justified on such grounds as national security, public order and morality.
This goes with point 9. Zuma is challenging the limits of free expression on the grounds of morality. I don’t think he has the stronger position, because I think the picture was a political observation rather than an attack on his person.
In the end I think Tselane Tambo has the right idea:
He should inspire the reverence he craves. This portrait is what he inspired.Shame neh!
Do you agree the painting is free expression or has it gone too far and is too insulting?
Edit: I’ve written more on the reaction to The Spear and it’s threat to “African values” as well as a short piece on it’s classification by the Film and Publications Board.