Picture the scene: it’s a couple of days before IEC voter registration, and all political parties are on a drive to get voters to register. At the same time, a government boys’ high school in Westville, Durban, is holding a small art exhibition at a very small neighbourhood shopping mall opposite the school. Displayed at the exhibition are three pieces that are readily classed as political satire. The ANC provincial brass goes into a froth, calling the works “racist”, accusing them of “ridiculing and undermining” the party leadership and saying they are “inconsistent with the values and ethos of the Constitution”. Oh, dear. Satire is by definition emotive, but it’s important to analyse the artworks and the response to reach a logical perspective.
Of the three pieces, one depicts President Zuma in a parody of the Bakers biscuit man logo, with the name changed to “Fakers”. The brand’s colours are changed to the ANC’s yellow, black and green. Another is a parody of Colonel Saunders of KFC fame, depicting a white-haired, bow tie-sporting Nelson Mandela, also in the ANC colours, with the KFC brand name behind him. Madiba is depicted with his fingers crossed over his shoulder. The third, which has garnered almost no media attention, depicts a trilogy of young boys in the “hear-no, see-no, speak-no evil” pose, each one’s T-shirt depicting the names Jacob, Bheki and Julius.
The first two are parodies reminiscent of the infamous Laugh it Off versus SAB Miller case, in which the T-shirt manufacturer won the right to parody the Carling Black Label brand. It wasn’t an easy fight, as SAB won the first two rounds in the lower courts before Laugh it Off won a unanimous appeal in the Constitutional Court. In his ruling, Justice Dikgang Moseneke said the right to freedom of expression should not be “lightly trampled upon”. Justice Albie Sachs added that “the over-zealous application of the trademark law could have a detrimental effect on the free circulation of ideas”. While this judgment dealt with commercial trademark infringement rather than the likely interpretation of the schoolboy artwork as the subject of personal dignity, the ANC would be wise to revisit not only the law books but also the lesson learned by SAB Miller. The giant brewer was humiliated in the highest court in the land by their own arrogant and churlish action, and they did themselves a good deal of harm by attempting to bully a tiny T-shirt manufacturer into submission. The result was that the matter received tons of media attention, whereas if they’d ignored it there’d most likely have been absolutely none. It’s also pertinent to note that this case ran from 2003 to 2005, before the explosion of social media, which no doubt would have added more layers of ridicule to the corporate giant.
I first heard about the Westville Boys High School matter late last Wednesday as I disembarked from a plane. My wife alerted me, as we have a son at the school and another entering it next year, so the matter was of personal as well as political interest. When I heard that one of the parodies depicted Mandela I sighed inwardly, fearing that the parody might have crossed the line. It’s not hard to justify ridiculing Jacob Zuma, if only because he’s so compromised on almost every front, but it’s another matter rattling the iconic Mandela cage. Then I saw the artworks and my sighs were instantly replaced by a desire to applaud the boy/s and the school. The Zuma “losers” parody is run-of-the-mill stuff, but the Mandela KFC one is exceptionally clever. Few people I’ve discussed this with appear to understand it, possibly veering subconsciously but defensively into the revered Madiba territory. I think that’s wrong, as it betrays logic for emotional political correctness.
My personal view of Madiba is that he’s probably the finest example of public leadership in modern history. He’s quite rightly an icon to billions, and there is no question whatsoever that the citizens of South Africa owe him a gigantic debt of gratitude. However, I maintain that he’s no saint, and no more than any deity you care to mention, above reproach. But this parody isn’t about Mandela, it’s about the ANC. As the paragon of ANC virtue he unquestionably occupies the highest place in the minds of the majority of South Africans. Thus, in this instance, the man is representative of the entire organisation. At a purely practical level, attempting to portray Zuma as the KFC Colonel would fail. There are no physical similarities that cut it. At a political level, the use of any other ANC leader’s visage wouldn’t have nearly the same impact. While Mac Maharaj springs to mind for purposes of resemblance, his role as spin doctor just doesn’t make the political grade. So Madiba it is, poetically so, as his influence has long stood quietly in the shadows of old age. The portrayal of the ANC as the country’s most popular fast food outlet (or junk food if you prefer) is where the genius of this schoolboy lies. He’s portraying the once mighty resistance organisation that symbolised social and political ideals as an increasing number of South Africans see it today – a resistance movement failing as a ruling party and corrupting the very principles it fought for. In the language of parody, the organisation that fed its followers a healthy balanced diet of principles has deteriorated to one feeding them saturated fats and the early onset of compromised political health.
Since Zuma took office, we’ve become accustomed to thin-skinned, churlish, paranoid, hyperbolic and myopic reactions by the ANC to criticism. It repeatedly conflicts with many of the democratic principles the ANC champions, making a mockery of their claim to the moral high ground. A prime example of this comes from KZN ANC spokesman Senzo Mkhize who penned this article for PoliticsWeb in which he wrote: “We view this as an attack on the ANC and on the country since the South African flag featured in the background. This incident reflects the extent to which certain institutions undermine democratically-elected African leaders, including international icons such as Madiba. It is unacceptable for a school’s management to allow individuals with their own agendas to ridicule and insult the leadership of the country in this manner. We strongly believe that the people involved in this despicable deed, which borders on racism, have a personal vendetta against the ANC and are now using innocent pupils to further their narrow venomous interests. This is akin to insulting the leadership of the ANC and nullifying all the good work our movement, working with peace-loving South Africans, have done in making sure that racism is buried in this country.”
It’s precisely this claptrap that buries the ANC in its own fodder. How is it remotely possible to call the artworks borderline racist when the ANC has admitted that they don’t know the race of the schoolboy or boys involved? If, as Mr Mkhize claims, the ANC has fought so hard to bury racism, why does it repeatedly revert to playing the race card? It’s disingenuous in the extreme and cheap political bombast. What special kind of contorted logic makes one conclude that because an artwork features the South African flag it amounts to an attack on the country? What kind of paranoiac believes that subversive forces are manipulating teenage boys to further “narrow, venomous interests”? If it weren’t so tragically farcical it would be funny. But it’s not. This is the provincial spokesman for the ANC writing – so he can’t unspin his carefully chosen words as media contextual misrepresentation. How outrageously implausible is it to claim that a schoolboy’s artwork (which would never have been noticed in the first place if the ANC hadn’t turned it into a media circus) “nullifies all the good work of the movement”? It’s such a preposterous statement that the only level-headed conclusion is that the man is either morally bankrupt or intellectually inept. Or both.
Mkhize goes on to say, “We call on the management of the school to investigate this incident and make sure that people who were behind the design of these T-shirts are sanctioned. The ANC has fought bitterly to build a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic country where we can all live together in harmony.” If Mr Mkhize had any nous, he might possibly see the irony in his rhetoric. The irony that it is he and his ilk that actually threaten the harmony the organisation he represents has fought so bitterly for. It is Mr Mkhize and those who adopt his pathetically myopic world view that have contributed to a schoolboy depicting the ANC as the political equivalent of a fast food brand that is slowly constricting the arteries of a nation, bloating it on obesity and strangling its beating heart. DM
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Recovering Mad Man, occasional writer, wine enthusiast, coffee addict and unpredictable wildling, Justin is a lifelong student of behavioural economics, politics and the irrational human psyche. Commercially he focuses on the intersecting stacks of media, marketing and technology, particularly in the telecoms, consumer technology, retailing and media sectors. His opinions represent no organisations or interest groups and he receives no recompense save for namedropping. He also likes nuts. Follower discretion @justininza is advised.
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