Contrary to many an opinion, the ANC's best friend these days is by now the infamous painting by Brett Murray. As things stand, they have reason to thank the artist for giving them a unique opportunity to further secure their core voting constituency from the further encroachment by the liberal infidels.
It may not have been the African National Congress’ intention when it first reacted to the painting by Brett Murray, but this is where things are headed – the party has been handed a golden opportunity to engage in dog-whistle politics, which it is utilising to a great extent.
The party first reacted on 17 May, after it had confirmed that this painting was indeed on display in the Goodman Gallery. It also learned that City Press had published the image in full on its website. Papers were filed by the party’s lawyers instructing the gallery and the paper to remove the image. When both refused, an application was made to the High Court, where the matter is due to be heard on Tuesday afternoon.
“It is in our view and we remain steadfast in that the image and the dignity of our President as both president of the ANC, president of the republic and as a human being has been dented by this so-called piece of art by Brett Murray at Goodman Gallery. We are also of the view that this distasteful depiction of the president has violated his individual right to dignity as contained in the Constitution of our country,” ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said.
On Monday, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe branded the painting as “rude, crude and disrespectful”.
“It has an element of racism. It says that black people feel no pain and can be portrayed walking around with their genitals in the open. They are objects of ridicule. I can tell you that if you were to draw a white politician in that way the outcry would be totally different,” Mantashe said.
According to him, the painting has polarised the country along racial lines. Pretty damn right he was.
On Monday, Mthembu sent out a new press release, calling on “supporters and the mass democratic movement” to gather outside the South Gauteng High Court on Tuesday to show support for the ANC president.
“We view this portrait and the depiction of the president by Brett Murray and the Goodman Gallery as distasteful, vulgar, indecent and disrespectful,” Mthembu said. “It is our view that the continued display and exhibition of this so-called portrait will continue to be an affront to the dignity and the privacy of President Zuma in all his capacities but also as a South African whose right to human dignity and privacy is protected and guaranteed by the South African Constitution.”
The continued emphasis on dignity, respect and racism is no accident.
Young Communist League leader Buti Manamela has promised to lead a march to the Goodman Gallery on Thursday to tear down the painting. “We are supportive of court proceedings, but in our view there has to be some action. There has to be some display of disgust,” he said.
A lot of the debate has focused on the perceived encroachment of patriarchal conservatism or the frayed “African vs Western” values, but this is almost beside the point. The Constitution is clear about what it protects and how it arrives at balancing opposing rights. The ANC has also been very clear that it has no intention of disobeying the decision of the court. That decision may be motivated by a desire to sharpen a very specific polarity in South Africa – that of the ANC’s people and “the others”.
Ever since the ANC decided that the best way to preserve its hold on the throne is by reminding its people that it is the only party that truly understands the black person’s suffering under apartheid, and it is therefore the only party that can guarantee that blacks will be treated with dignity and respect, its message has changed. A peculiar sort of nationalism has replaced the sunny non-racialism of the immediate post-1994 era.
The signs of this shift in gear are everywhere, but none more obvious than the ANC’s message during election time. “The DA is for whites and not for you,” former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema once told a crowd.
Recently, Western Cape ANC spokesman Mlibo Qoboshiyane uttered a similarly ham-fisted remark in response to the “refugee” controversy. “This... inhumane statement coupled with unfair labelling against school children studying in the Western Cape are further testament to the fact that the DA thinks Western Cape is a place for whites only.”
The ANC has also noted that it is losing support among minorities. Those who once felt that they had a home in the party have moved to other, more welcoming places.
Apartheid took away many things from the black majority, and one of the underestimated affronts was the loss of dignity and pride (that came about through the loss of ancestral land, the erosion of tradition and cultures, to name a few of apartheid’s interventions).
For the ANC to repeatedly bang on the issue of Zuma’s loss of dignity thanks to The Spear is to evoke that sentiment. Once again, an mlungu has treated Africans as less than deserving of respect. Or as Mantashe put it, “[The Spear] says that black people feel no pain and can be portrayed walking around with their genitals in the open. They are objects of ridicule.”
Powerful as it is, the message may slip by unnoticed because it is dog-whistle politics as only the ANC can produce. To some, the court case between the gallery, City Press and the ANC will be about the balancing of rights. Some will be worried that we’re getting dangerously close to the idea of lèse majesté (offending the sovereign), which completely flies in the face of our progressive Constitution.
But for their audience – those most likely to vote for the ANC because of the country’s past – this will be a clear sign that only one party in the land understands their issues. The “others” are happy to offend because they simply don’t respect us.
The tactic won’t work forever. Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has pointed out that the ANC stands in great danger of losing the “born free” vote. The party’s response to that has been to percolate its message to the shrinking (eventually) constituency of apartheid sufferers. For now, as long as the majority of voters were born long before 1994, the ANC will continue to use this dog-whistle tactic to good effect. DM