The debate about freedom of expression has flared up again in South Africa after a controversial painting of an ‘exposed’ President Jacob Zuma was vandalized on Tuesday at a Johannesburg gallery. Our correspondent asked some vocal South Africans what they think.
By Miriam Mannak, Cape Town
The two paint-wielding vandals who attacked 'The Spear' – and have since been arrested and released on bail – should be prosecuted, say some. Others believe protest is a universal right.
Protest against protest
If it were up to Fiona Zerbst, a published poet from Pretoria, the vandals would be granted the same privilege as the artist: freedom of expression.
“What is a better protest than to protest against protest art? If we champion unfettered freedom of speech, we should also be prepared to take freedom of expression to its logical conclusion and petition the Goodman Gallery to drop the charges.”
“As much as I believe in freedom of speech, I don’t believe it has ‘absolute’ value,” she adds. “It is interesting that two contesting ‘rights’ – of dignity and freedom of expression, which are both equal in the Constitution – will be tested in court over this matter.”
Earlier this week, President Zuma and his governing African National Congress party asked the court to instruct the gallery to remove the artwork. “I feel that my constitutional rights are being violated for as long as this portrait continues to be on display,” the President stated in his affidavit. “It suggests I am a philanderer, a womanizer, one with no respect.”
The hearing has been postponed to Thursday.
Others have different views on the business suit-wearing white man who spray-painted two red Xs on the canvas and the younger, black man in a hooded sweatshirt who subsequently smeared black paint on it.
“These men are simply vandals,” says Muna Lakhani, an environmental activist in Cape Town who works for Earth Life Africa. “Besides, the fuss around the painting was invalid. Artists throughout history have lampooned politicians, after all,” he adds.
Defacing the painting is the latest episode in what some have jokingly referred to as ‘Penisgate’, which began with the opening of Cape Town artist Brett Murray’s 'Hail to the Thief II' exhibit.
Murray’s depiction of Zuma in a Lenin-like pose with his genitals hanging out of his trousers is an unequivocal commentary on how the ANC is running the country.
This is hardly Murray’s first satirical work. For the past two decades, he has used protest art to criticize public figures, including Apartheid-era politicians.
‘The Spear’ might have triggered chuckles across the country, yet a seemingly equal number responded angrily, claiming the portrait was “vulgar”, robbed Zuma of his dignity and took freedom of expression too far.
The Black Management Forum, an organization that aims to foster South African transformation, classed the artwork as an attack “on the President and on black South African culture in general”.
Janine Phillips, an outspoken IT specialist from Cape Town, does not agree. “In a country where rape and sexual abuse of children is so prevalent, I'm not sure that [a] penis in a painting is ‘vulgar’, as the ANC claims,” she says.
“The President believes the painting depicts him as ‘a philanderer and womanizer’. Let him seek the definitions of those words, for a philanderer and womanizer he is,” she adds, referring to Zuma’s four wives, score of legitimate children and various offspring out of wedlock.
Pending the court case, the Johannesburg gallery has been closed to the public. The portrait has been moved to a safe location.
“We feel that the Goodman Gallery, its staff as well as public visitors are at risk,” owner Liza Esser said in a statement. “The extent of the rage has upset me very much.”