The Spear, a test for South Africa’s free expression

The Spear by Brett Murray

There has been a lot of talk about Brett Murray’s depiction of President Jacob Zuma in the picture, The Spear, which already has it’s own Wikipedia entry. Everyone has their opinion on the picture, which was sold for R136 000, and whether it is a legitimate example of freedom of expression or whether it should be removed and destroyed. I want to look at it in light of the 10 principles of free speech I talked about earlier.

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.


24 thoughts on “The Spear, a test for South Africa’s free expression

  1. Pingback: South Africa: The Spear, Freedom of Speech and Morality · Global Voices

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  4. Pingback: South Africa: The Spear, Freedom of Speech and Morality | Art Online Galleries –

  5. It is so insulting. If that guy think its not, let him paint his girlfriend or his mom.

  6. Is there a reason to pain either of them though? Are they public figures or private citizens?

    Zuma is arguably the most public figure in South Africa and his personal conduct is both relevant to the country as a whole and of public interest. His personal conduct is important because it informs the decisions he takes for the entire country and that determine everyone’s future. It is not possible for someone with that power to hide away. That doesn’t apply to the average private citizen.

    While it may be insulting it is not insulting for no reason. It is meant to draw attention to his, and the ANC’s, conduct. In addition just because something is insulting doesn’t mean that it should be forbidden. It simply isn’t possible to keep people from being offended and we must learn, as part of a multi-cultural society, that we will be offended from time to time and to tolerate that. That is especially true for public figures.

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  8. How is this pictures freedom to exist different when comparing pictures, statues and propoganda of the ANC leader or past leader all over the country?

  9. I suppose it could have and should have been worse, The picture could have been with him holding a white head by the hair in his hand and the body left bleeding at his feet. Now that might give him a reason for concern. This is just saying what his substandard morality is like. It is also shared by 99.9% of his brethern .

  10. I do believe, as you suggest in your article, that if you’re in public office a lot of your personal life is and possibly should be open to public scrutiny. Whether or not this is simply a matter of free speech/ freedom of expression is questionable though.

    The quesion is where does one draw the line between satire, art and bad taste? IMHO, Brett Murray has crossed that line here. The only benchmark I can think of using to make the judgement is whether would it be acceptable to see my ‘equipment’ publically displayed because of someone else’s opinion – for me, that answer is squarely NO. Zuma, for the philanderer that he may well be should be extended that courtesy too.

    For a laugh, I think you’d enjoy Wonkie’s latest cartoon on the Spear topic – do check out:


  11. Just because something is in bad taste doesn’t mean it should be banned. For example I consider Jackass to be in bad taste but if some people enjoy that then it’s their business.

    As you said, Zuma is in a public office which is why I don’t think your benchmark applies in this situation. If someone publicly displayed your ‘equipment’ because of their opinion of you it would not be a political statement nor would it serve the public interest.

    That’s not to say that a naked picture of an ordinary citizen can not serve a political purpose. For example Maryam Namazie’s nude calender has private citizens protesting violence, sexism and such. Of course this was also willing participation.

    Zuma’s picture is obviously not willing but, also important, it’s not really his ‘equipment.’ The picture is a painting and is completely fictional. It’s also worth noting that this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. In my follow-up post I linked to Pierre De Vos describing a similar incident in Canada, with very different results, and I’ve since found out that this isn’t even the first political painting of Zuma naked. I can’t recall the artists name offhand, though I believe it was a she from Cape Town, but her picture did not generate such an outcry.

  12. Jason, you’re missing the point. I am not suggesting a ban because of bad taste – the issue is where do you draw the boundary between something that is offensive and what can be considered ‘art’. The easiest way to test thinking is in extremes – would you consider hardcore porn that is ‘artistically done’ by some producer’s standard ok for general publication or for show on tv? He might consider it ok but you and most others would probably not.

    My point is that it all about where one chooses to draw that line – and it is a very subjective line. To make a blanket statement that’s it’s ok and acceptable art without understanding where you are on the line is to take up a somewhat ignorant stance. Make no mistake, I am not defending Zuma but nobody seems to be accounting for the fact that the guy, no matter how philandering and womanising he may be is still a human being.

  13. I think I’m confused because I’m not sure what that line is for. You’re saying you’re not suggesting a ban because of taste but your example is of restricted material. Are you saying that art is free expression but something that is offensive is not art and not afforded those same freedoms?

  14. May I point out that the jews and their protocols of Zion admit that modern art should be as nauseous and as deplorable as possible. So much the better according to them. Having said that, how can they now say enough is enough? Unless they are prepared to admit that their views and activities they promote are totally one sided and laughingly hypocritical at best, then the entire (Joe Schlomo )belief system of communism that propelled Mandella to power becomes mute. (Provided the negro mind can fathom all of this)

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  18. Can I simply say what a relief to discover an individual who genuinely knows what they are talking about over the internet. You actually realize how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More and more people have to check this out and understand this side of your story. It’s surprising you’re not more popular since you surely possess the gift.

  19. I completely agree with the author of the article. If nude art should be illegal, then St. Peter’s Basicala in Italy should be torn down as well. Also every nude painting ever made should be burned in a public display of suppression of the most basic of human rights. But then again, our president is not exactly “well schooled”, so this idiotic banter is expected.

    I do however feel that the painting is offensive. Who would want to see some that (censored) on a painting against your wall? And who would pay anything for it in the first place.

    On a closing note I just want to mention that this is just another step in the process of the ANC converting this lovely country into a communistic state. First the Scorpions, next the suggestion to oppress the media, and now this s***.

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  22. A bit late in the day to comment but having just watched eNCA South Africa in review and The Spear came up, my thought was – why should a man who has fathered more than or around 19 children be ashamed of his manhood. Wearing a designer suit all that was missing was the spear to prove his Zuluness and his excuse for being a polygamist. Zuma uses his culture only when it suits him.

  23. Pingback: Exaggerated and misguided statements by ANC | Evidence & Reason

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