A Spear to the Heart of South Africa

By Macgregor, Karen | International Herald Tribune, June 6, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Spear to the Heart of South Africa


Macgregor, Karen, International Herald Tribune


A controversy over a painting reveals the tensions that still run deep.

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.

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. …

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