South Africa

SA communists: Spitting mad over that painting

By Sipho Hlongwane 28 May 2012

On the eve of the national congress of the South African Communist Party, its central committee met and issued a statement about things like its Draft Programme 2012 – 2017. But the press conference was taken up by something else: The Spear. SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande in particular was seeing red.

The central committee of the SACP met over the weekend in what will be its last meeting before the 13th national congress in July, where a new leadership will be elected. The statement of the central committee focuses on many long-term issues, like the Draft Programme, but most of the press conference was taken up by an issue of a more pressing nature: Brett Murray’s painting of President Jacob Zuma.

The central committee mirrored its stance to The Spear with that of the African National Congress by calling for a boycott of the City Press (until an apology is issued) for publishing the image on its website, and has promised to mobilise its members to support the ANC’s march to the Goodman Gallery on Tuesday.

The committee also said Murray should have been more circumspect, given the peculiar history with which black South Africans must live.

“Freedom of speech and the related freedom of artistic expression are important freedoms in any democracy. The SACP has an outstanding record of being in the trenches of the struggle for the achievement of these rights in the darkest days of colonial and apartheid repression,” the central committee statement said.

It continues: “But this is not a primarily abstract, universalist right. And the rage around Murray’s work raises the need for all of us to understand and take responsibility for the concrete economic, social, cultural and even psychological realities of our society in which we all continue to suffer from deep-seated phobias, lingering prejudices, and in the case of the majority, basic deprivations and a continuing sense of pain and hurt.”

In the hands of Nzimande, the statement of the central committee took on a far angrier stance. The underlying message fell in line behind the ANC’s greater theme of Murray’s assault on the dignity of Zuma and black people in general. To Nzimande, there is no interpretation other than the demonization of the black body.

“This [painting] is plagiarism, by the way,” Nzimande said. “This is a copy of a painting of Lenin. The only thing that is original is the insult. The central issue is that Murray’s drawing is insulting, provocative and racist.”

The racism of the painting arises because Murray clearly thinks it is okay to portray a black body in this fashion, Nzimande said.

He also claimed that the painting is part of a broader “liberal offensive” on the philosophical stance of the tripartite alliance, commonly called the national democratic revolution.

“This is why the DA is silent. They don’t care. This is proof that the liberal offensive does not care about the majority,” he said.

To Nzimande, it is a grievous error on the part of the gallery, Murray and City Press that they have not taken into account the feelings of the “millions” that have been offended by the painting. According to Nzimande, all who have been offended by the painting have found it to be racist. He posited this mass umbrage as reason enough for City Press and the Goodman Gallery to comply with the ANC’s demand for the painting to be removed from the public space – no matter how the newspaper and gallery might feel about it.

“You may differ with us, but the central issue is that millions of people were insulted,” he said.

The central committee also strongly reinforced the notion that the office of the president of the country needs to be respected. Nzimande did not define in clear terms what the party means by “respect” or why the presidency should enjoy an extraordinary level of protection from criticism, except to say that “we cannot say that we believe in this democracy and not respect the office of the president”.

However, on Thursday the ANC and Zuma brought an urgent application for an interdict against the City Press and the gallery, where a full bench of the South Gauteng High Court quickly rejected – and made the president’s advocate concede – the idea that the office of the president has dignity. The Constitution makes no such provision.

Nzimande will lead a delegation of central committee members to the City Press, where the differences between the two organisations will be discussed. If Nzimande’s comments at the press conference on Sunday are anything to go by, nothing short of a full apology from the paper will do.

The 13th national congress of the SACP will be held from 11 to 15 July in northern KwaZulu- Natal, where a new leadership, central committee and politburo will be elected. Nzimande said he was not in the slightest bit worried about what might transpire over those four days. The thought that he might lose his position in the communist party doesn’t seem to worry him in the least. DM

Photo: SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande addresses the media following a meeting of the party’s central committee. Sipho Hlongwane/DAILY MAVERICK.


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