The first day of the hearing into the urgent application brought by President Jacob Zuma against the Goodman Gallery and City Press was eventful, though not for reasons anyone would have anticipated. Zuma’s advocate broke down and wept, prompting the judge to adjourn. Outside, the crowd was rather unusually subdued.
After the false start on Tuesday, the scene for what could turn out to be one of South Africa’s pivotal court battles was set. The ANC had asked all “peace-loving South Africans” to gather outside the South Gauteng High Court in solidarity with President Jacob Zuma, who has brought an urgent application against the Goodman Gallery and City Press to remove all images of The Spear, a portrait by Brett Murray that depicted the president with exposed genitals.
Outside, the situation remained calm throughout the day. Police blocked off Pritchard Street as ANC supporters toyi-toyied in front of a truck parked there by the ANC. Their placards condemned the abuse of artistic expression and demanded Zuma’s dignity is respected. One placard said Robert Mugabe was right and “they” should go.
The 300 people gathered outside the court watched the proceedings briefly on a large screen before returning to their struggle songs. Inside the court, the temperature of the exchange between the judges and advocate Gcina Malindi would start very high, and not cool at any point.
Malindi hit his first snag when judge Neels Claassen asked him what exactly he wanted the court to declare. Malindi didn’t seem sure what Zuma wanted exactly, but then said the president wanted the exhibition of the painting at the gallery and the publication of the image on the City Press website to be declared unlawful. He also wanted the court to order both respondents to remove the image. Claassen and the other two judges seemed unimpressed by this request, and repeatedly put it to Malindi that it would be impossible to pursue this action as the image had been reproduced multiple times on various websites.
Malindi responded by saying it would be up to his client to decide whether or not he would pursue everyone who published the image after such an act had been declared unlawful. In essence, this was a request for a sweeping ban.
Things got really heated when Malindi then intoned that there was a racial element to the case.
“What evidence is there that this is a colonial attack on the black cultures of this country?” Claassen asked.
“There have been heavy suggestions that only the educated understand art and it is beyond the comprehension of people who don’t belong to this group,” replied Malindi.
Claassen then said if Zuma’s children supported the motion and objected to the picture, he also had before him testimony from three black artists who said, “…you also have three other black (artists) saying the picture was not racist and could be interpreted in another way. This is black against black.”
Malindi dismissed the arguments of the black artists as irrelevant, since they were connoisseurs of art.
“They are seeing art through the eyes of the elite class,” he said. “Black people also have high levels of appreciation of these things.”
He then agreed with Claassen that this wasn’t a race issue, saying: “I implore the court and those who convey messages to consider the diversity of South Africa. There is a superclass of people who believe that things should be seen in their eyes.”
Judge Fayeeza Kathree-Setiloane then asked if the relief sought wasn’t academic, since the painting had already been taken down, thanks to the work of two vandals.
“Declaring the painting and its publication unlawful would go a long way to assuage (Zuma’s) wounded feelings,” Malindi replied.
Malindi’s attempts to describe the historical context in which this painting now operates eventually brought him to tears. The court was then adjourned indefinitely.
A former leading United Democratic Front activist, Malindi was part of the infamous Delmas Trial that took place in the late 1980s. The apartheid government had hoped to quash the UDF movement once and for all by jailing its leaders, but the trial was eventually thrown out by the Supreme Court in 1989.
Speaking to the media at the High Court after the incident, Malindi said: “I’m an advocate and I work under ethical rules that we don’t comment on a case in which we are involved. But you can say I broke down. As a former activist it brought back those issues, which was why I was overwhelmed.”
Unaware for a long period that the court had been adjourned to allow Malindi to compose himself, the crowd outside never really reached the size or volume that was expected after the ANC’s rallying call. The few that were there were in high spirits, though.
Photo: DAILY MAVERICK/Greg Nicolson.
Sanithule Kubeka, a 58-year-old ANC supporter from Berea, was confident the party would win. “They must win this case because it is a problem for us as South Africans… It’s a problem for us because (the painting) takes the dignity from Zuma. Zuma is a president for all of us South Africans. We need to unite together – white or black, coloured or Indian.”
Kubeka supported those who defaced The Spear. “I think they’re right, maybe. These men, they don’t want the picture shown to the public… Someone if they draw a picture of Zuma, they must go to Zuma and get permission for that.”
Congress of South Africa Students organiser, Lulu Jonas, 26, agreed. “I feel what has happened to the president is to disrespect his dignity… So I’m here to show that you cannot portray a picture like that… A picture that is showing your private parts, that is unacceptable,” said Jonas, wearing a “President Zuma has a right to human dignity” T-shirt.
“I think it’s racial,” he said. “We need to fight that and show that this country is a non-racial and non-sexist country… President Jacob Zuma is the president of the country, of the Republic of South Africa, and we need to respect him as our president.”
As court proceedings resumed in the afternoon, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe addressed the crowd outside from the party truck. “Frankly, battle lines are drawn… it is a battle about domination and subjection,” he said. “Our culture is not inferior. We have to fight for that culture.”
The ANC has also promised to march to the Goodman Gallery on Tuesday.
After Blade Nzimande and Jackson Mthembu, Mantashe was the third tripartite alliance figure to call for a boycott of City Press, the first newspaper to publicise the depiction of Zuma.
“All citizens should not buy City Press on Sunday until they remove the picture from their website and apologise publicly,” he told the crowd. “The struggle continues… Phansi (down), City Press, phansi!… We are taking the struggle to them.” DM
Photo: Supporters of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party demonstrate against the showing of a painting by artist Brett Murray, outside a court in Johannesburg May 24 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.
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