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The Spear: Millions of people were insulted

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

It is too simplistic to simply posit the debate over the Zuma painting as being between the right to freedom of expression and the right not to have one’s dignity unfairly impugned. This matter also has to do with how we should deal with the legacy of apartheid, SIPHO HLONGWANE argues.

Let’s get a few things out of the way first:

  • I believe that President Jacob Zuma has an inalienable right to human dignity. This right is accorded to him not because I like him, or because he is the president, but because he is a fellow human being.
  • I do not think that Brett Murray’s painting displays artistic depth. A Zuma painting which features his goolies out in the air says what exactly? That he’s a man of enviable sexual stamina? That he’s a polygamist? We know this. And whatever one might say about his rape case, he had his day in court and was acquitted. Some say that Murray’s portrait is a comment on the intersection of power and sex in our society. Yes, again, we live in a society that is ruled by patriarchy and conservatism. So what exactly has Murray challenged? (Then again, I’m no art critic)

A point that seems to be missing in this painting debate is the fact that many people – most of them black – have found it to be massively insulting and offensive.

As South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande put it, albeit with hyperbole: “Millions of people were insulted”.

We cannot escape from that fact. That is the backdrop against which this debate has to take place. It is a hugely emotive issue for a lot of people, and there is a reason why the response has been so hysterical.

When Louis Makobela was apprehended by the Goodman Gallery’s overly enthusiastic security guard, he had only one thing to say: “This is an insult.”

Gwede Mantashe of the ANC has repeatedly used the same phrase. It’s an insult.

Advocate Gcina Malindi might have used the same phrase in court. It’s an insult.

It is clear that Zuma is using the painting as a way to reunite the unions and the ANC masses behind him as he heads towards the ANC’s national congress at the end of the year, but he would not have been able to use this painting if he could not convince the masses that his injury was theirs as well.

This is a reality that Murray, City Press and others should consider strongly when arguing that freedom of expression should win this one. For too many blacks, their interpretation of Murray’s painting isn’t an abstract representation of corrupt sexual or political power, but a picture that conjures up years of black humiliation at the hands of white apartheid power.

The “get over it” response in this situation is callous beyond words.

I can only imagine how deep Malindi’s pain was for him to break down in tears as he merely described in very broad terms some of the injustices visited upon blacks in the name of white superiority. He was one of the accused in the Delmas Trial that attempted to crush the United Democratic Front.

I believe that the empathy he feels with Zuma insofar as the painting conjures up black humiliation under apartheid is very real.

And so is the outrage that the ANC has managed to provoke. It wasn’t difficult because “millions” feel real empathy for Zuma and outrage on his behalf.

The challenge is explaining this. The most immediate response on the social media sites when Malindi started crying was mockery. Clearly, many feel nothing for the advocate’s pain. These people have no empathy for apartheid sufferers.

And, as undignified and insulting as it might be for blacks to have to explain their pain to white people, it would be a great victory and a giant step towards real social cohesion if we could all agree that apartheid left deep emotional and psychological scars. There was nothing just or happy about it, despite what FW de Klerk might think.

The preamble to our Constitution says, “We, the people of South Africa, recognise the injustices of our past; honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.”

I cannot see how the court may decide this matter without giving due attention to the injustices of our past and the need for unity in our diversity today. That’s why the protection of human dignity is a cornerstone of the Constitution.

Denying Zuma the right to feel that his dignity and self-worth has been stripped by Murray’s painting is to deny the perspective of those who suffered under apartheid. I trust this will not be interpreted as denying anyone the right to freedom of expression. But unlike Makobela and his “accomplice” who defaced the painting, I trust the courts to weigh up these competing rights and reach the most just solution.

I wonder if Murray might have come up with a different visual metaphor had he considered that the effects of apartheid might cause millions to be insulted. DM

Read more:

  • Justice Malala: Why Malindi cried, in TimesLive.
  • Sabelo Ndlangisa: why I find The Spear unsettling, in City Press.
  • Fikile-Ntsikelelo Mboya: Spare a thought for Zuma’s lawyer in City Press.

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