Zuma and his spear

A South African art gallery removed an explicit painting of President Jacob Zuma after pressure from the African National Congress, write Nimi Hoffmann and Maryam Omidi.

The case

In May 2012, South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, turned to the courts to ban a painting, which showed him fully clothed but with his genitals exposed. The case was brought against Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery for displaying artist Brett Murray’s The Spear, a satirical painting done in the style of Soviet-era posters of Vladimir Lenin and City Press newspaper for republishing it. The case was first lodged on behalf of Zuma in his capacity as president of South Africa. However, on the first day of the court case, Zuma’s lawyer, Gcina Malindi, agreed that “the office of the president” has no dignity as such and therefore agreed to drop the claim. It was then lodged on behalf of Zuma in his personal capacity.

Malindi initially called for the painting to be removed from the gallery, for all promotional materials to be destroyed and for City Press to delete images of The Spear from its website. The ruling African National Congress and the trade union movement COSATU called on South Africans to boycott City Press. One of South Africa’s largest churches, the Nazareth Baptist Church, jumped to the president’s defence, calling for Murray to be stoned to death.

Lawyers representing the gallery argued that artistic expression is protected under the South African constitution. Zuma’s lawyers contended that the painting violates the president’s right to dignity, which is also safeguarded by the constitution. In a legal affidavit, the president said: “The portrait depicts me in a manner that suggests I am a philanderer, a womaniser and one with no respect … In terms of the theme of the exhibition, my portrait is meant to convey a message that I am an abuser of power, corrupt and suffer political ineptness.” Murray said the work was a satire of “political power and patriarchy within the context of other artworks in the exhibition and within the broadcast context of SA discourse”.

The same month, two men, one black and one white, defaced the painting, resulting in the gallery’s removal of it. Furthermore, the editor of City Press, Ferial Haffajee, withdrew an image of the painting from its website as an “olive branch” to angered black individuals as well as in response to “fear” bred by “threats and invective” against the newspaper and its staff. On 30 May 2012, the ANC agreed to drop the lawsuit.

Author opinion

Nimi Hoffman

Article 12 of the South African Constitution protects the right to inherent dignity, but insulting judgments of character are constitutional, since they do not undermine inherent dignity by questioning the value of a person as a human being.

However, what has been labelled “Penisgate” does not relate to the right to the freedom of speech in an obvious or uncomplicated way. South Africa has a clear apartheid history of infantilising and sexualising black men, and black individuals continue to suffer disproportionate violations of basic human rights, such as the rights to decent work, housing and education.  This may explain why people are particularly upset about the work. Critics have argued that the ANC exploited this to deflect attention away from pressing socio-economic concerns and bolster popular support during internal ANC election campaigns. Other critics have argued that insistence on Zuma's right to dignity appears petty when compared with the way in which ordinary South Africans' right to material dignity are routinely and broadly violated.

Ferial Haffajee's withdrawal of The Spear has been roundly criticised by some black intellectuals for giving into political bullying, for being condescending to black South Africans by assuming a homogeneity of views, and refusing the constitutional free speech rights of dissenters.

A more subtle criticism concerns racial inequalities in the artworld. Bretty Murray, the painter of The Spear, is white. In 2010, black artist Ayanda Mabuli produced a far more graphic and critical artwork entitled Ngcono ihlwempu kunesibhanxo sesityebi (Better a fool than a rich man’s nonsense). Amongst other things, it depicted Jacob Zuma with his penis in crutches. Why then, Unathi Kondile asks, was there no outcry over Mabulu's depiction of President Zuma? Kondile argues that black artists are routinely sidelined and required to make "identity" art in order to gain any sort of recognition. Since Mabuli's work did not do so, it was ignored. Kondile's thesis is thought-provoking; the assumption, he argues, is that “a black artist is intellectually incapable of producing a complex work – blacks are incapable of satire – until they are verified by their white counterparts.”

Despite its limitations, the case of “Penisgate” shows the high levels of public discussion and criticism in South Africa, which are crucial to a deliberative democracy. The question remains as to whether this case can be used to open the door to more constructive debates around gender equality, racial equality, and the politics of art.

Maryam Omidi

City Press should not have yielded to the ANC’s political bullying. While I understand that the paper compromised a principle – in this case the right to free speech – for social harmony, I think it sets a harmful precedent. It sends out the following message: intimidation can be used to chill freedom of expression. The artwork may have been in bad taste, but this does not mean it should have been removed or banned. Provocative art challenges our commitment to free speech and we should tread carefully to ensure the right example is set. If we dislike a creative work, we usually have the option of not hearing, viewing or reading it – as we did in this case.

Furthermore, through his art Murray was making a political statement. He was highlighting the corruption in Zuma’s government – the artwork was part of an exhibition called Hail to the Thief – and making a judgement on the president’s controversial sexual relations, above all, the allegations of rape. As president of the country, Zuma should be open to a higher level of criticism and satire than the ordinary citizen.

- Nimi Hoffmann and Maryam Omidi

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    Censors recently repealed the ‘over-16’ rating for this painting.


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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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