Nine years ago, George W Bush stood on the flight deck USS Abraham Lincoln and proudly declared that the war in Iraq was over. “In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed,” he proudly declared in front of a banner with bold letters stating Mission Accomplished.
In much the same way, African National Congress secretary-general Gwede Mantashe stood on the back of an Isuzu truck on Tuesday afternoon and declared, pointing in the direction of the Goodman Gallery, that the march the party had organised was successful.
A few days before, South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande had declared that the gallery and City Press (which had published the portrait on its website) should remove Brett Murray’s painting The Spear from display. The call was quickly echoed by ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu, and Mantashe.
Things escalated quickly from there. The ANC submitted an application to the High Court to have the images removed – and Mantashe called for a march upon the Goodman Gallery.
“We have learned that what we have not earned in the streets we will not earn in the court,” he declared outside the court last week. A march was quickly organised, and on Tuesday morning, the throngs gathered just over a kilometre away at Zoo Lake, to march to the gallery in Rosebank.
Happily for the ANC and its alliance partners, their representatives had a meeting with City Press on Monday – a day before the march was planned – and the newspaper decided to pull the image from its website.
The march on Tuesday had a triumphant atmosphere from the outset as the ANC celebrated its famous victory over City Press. The focal point thus became the Goodman Gallery. This was despite the fact that the offending portrait had been removed from public display, thanks to the work of two vandals who had defaced it.
Photo: Louis Mabokela (centre), one of the two men charged with defacing The Spear, was welcomed by march leaders who posed with him for photos. He was draped in a new outfit on the march truck and posed with church leaders. DAILY MAVERICK/Greg Nicolson.
The 4,000-strong crowd march from Zoo Lake to the gallery without any trouble whatsoever. There was never a sense that things could get out of hand. Instead, the march had an almost carnival-like atmosphere to it. Whenever I got close to Mantashe, Nzimande or any of the alliance leaders, the people thronging around them were far more interested in getting a candid camera shot next to a political figure than in actually getting worked up about the portrait.
The general tone of the march changed when the riot police finally stopped the march a stone’s throw away from the gallery. As various leaders of the alliance got a turn on the microphone, it became clear that a line had been drawn.
Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini and Blade Nzimande posited the fight over the painting as a liberal versus “majoritarian” fight.
Dlamini said, “Those who want to oppose the majoritarian rule of the ANC, Cosatu will be there. Even if you march against us, Cosatu will engage you.”
Nzimande called upon the gallery not to allow the defaced painting to leave the country (after it was reported that it had been sold to a German buyer) because it would be a “second Sarah Baartman”. “It must be destroyed once and for all,” he said.
The SACP general secretary also dismissed Murray’s apparent anti-apartheid past when he said those who had been with the ANC in the past but now turned their backs on it were imidlwembe (mongrels).
Mantashe then read the gallery’s response to the ANC’s founding affidavit in court, or at least only the parts where gallery owner Liza Essers and Murray acknowledged that the painting may have conjured up some horrific memories from South Africa’s racist history for black viewers. He then declared that, although City Press had taken the image down from its website, and the painting was removed from display at the website due to vandalism, the ANC still wanted a formal apology from the gallery and a promise to remove the image from its website.
But Young Communist League leader Buti Manamela went one further, declaring that if the gallery did not remove Murray’s entire exhibition, they would “close” the gallery down.
After the tripartite-alliance leaders presented a memorandum to representatives from the gallery, they returned and said that their opposite numbers had promised to remove The Spear from the website. And thus, after the “Mission Accomplished” declaration, the march dissipated.
But it was far from over. Less than half an hour after the crowds had cleared out the road outside the gallery, its lawyers released a statement saying: “The statements made by the ANC spokesman during the march on the Goodman Gallery do not reflect the proposals made by the Goodman Gallery to the ANC in confidential negotiations which did not result in a settlement. Liza Essers, Goodman Gallery.”
This caused considerable confusion because the ANC had declared that the gallery had promised to remove the website image – as was said to the crowd – and that the day had therefore been a great triumph.
In the meantime, the gallery and City Press dug their heels in before the Films and Publications Board, which had said that it had the authority to classify the painting. A final decision by the FPB was not reached by the time this story was published.
Three things were certain by the end of Tuesday: The ANC was determined to mark its march as a triumph, the Goodman Gallery did not agree that it had capitulated before the ANC, and something profound had just taken place.
Nobody can quite say what any of this means just yet (we’re not far away enough as yet), but something shifted. Whether we’ll look back on this with the amusement and chagrin that time brings, or as the harbinger of doom – only time can tell. But for now the ANC will retreat victorious. Why it decided to fight one man’s battle in the first place is a question it will have to answer at some point in the future. DM
Photos of the march by Greg Nicolson, Jordi Matas and Sipho Hlongwane.
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