‘The Spear’ causes controversy in South Africa

A satirical painting of South African President Jacob Zuma exposing his genitals raises the ire of the ruling ANC.

A painting of South African President Jacob Zuma exposing his genitals has been all over the news here lately.

It has kicked up a furore over the artist’s right to freedom of expression which in this case conflicts with many Africans’ belief that as president, Zuma deserves the respect due people in powerful positions.

The art work was smeared with red and black paint by two people on Tuesday after days of increasingly angry rhetoric from Zuma’s African National Congress, its political allies and Zuma’s own family.

The Goodman Gallery’s been “astonished” by the response but has refused to take it down.

Firstly it has to be said that it is likely the painting’s offending (or not) brushstrokes would have gone entirely unnoticed by the general public if the ruling ANC hadn’t drawn it to everyone’s attention with a news release, thus guaranteeing it was front page news and on every local news programme the very next day.

So it is going to be hugely embarrassing if, when the ANC takes the Goodman Gallery to court to try and get it removed, the ANC loses.

Over the weekend the Sunday Times contrasted the reaction in South Africa to reaction in Canada of another painting, this one depicting Prime Minister Stephen Harper, reclining nude, with a dog at his feet. Harper’s spokespeople have handled the exposure with a joke via twitter saying: “We’re not impressed. Everyone knows the PM is a cat person.”

While I think the comparison is valuable, that’s only because it provides such a contrast, as it underlines the difference between a fully Western-orientated democracy and a democracy under construction.

While on the one hand the vast majority of Western-minded (and therefore more likely white) opinion is that the artist’s right to freedom of expression trumps everything else, the truth is lots of South Africans are offended by it on the basis of a simple difference in culture – one in which many blacks feel that Zuma should be immune to such satirical depiction.

That regardless of what anyone thinks of his polygamy, policies, past allegations of corruption and rape – when it comes to what is inside his pant, it’s none of our business.

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