South African Scuffle Over Controversial Portrait Spurs Debate, Censorship

Source: Daily Maverick

How far should newspaper editorial go to protect their free speech in the face of business-crippling boycott? What dangerous precedents are set by self-censorship?

Ferial Haffajee, editor of the South African City Press, faced these concerns at their most difficult earlier this year, and spoke to University of Cape Town students on the perils of publishing controversial material.

Brett Murray’s The Spear has been rife with controversy since its first gallery appearance in early May. Based on a well-known Leninist propaganda poster, The Spear portrays South African president Jacob Zuma with exposed genitals. Zuma is notorious for sexual scandal, including a 2005 rape trial.

The painting’s display in the Goodman Gallery prompted complaint, protest, and attempts of legal action from Zuma’s ruling party, the African National Congress, who issued a statement claiming constitutional violations:

…[T]he image and the dignity of our President as both President of the ANC, President of the Republic and as a human being has been dented by this so-called piece of art by Brett Murray at Goodman Gallery. We are also of the view that this distasteful depiction of the President has violated his individual right to dignity as contained in the constitution of our country.

However, many, like Justice Malala in writing on the The Guardian website, argue that the President’s public stature as well as his behavior permit mockery and satire as a part of life:

There is nothing in our constitution that enjoins us to respect the head of state, or to genuflect before him. This is a constitutional democracy, not a monarchy. Respect is earned, and very few would say that the president has earned our respect given his lifestyle.

The ANC’s legal challenge of the gallery display was rendered moot when the painting was pulled after significant defacement with black paint. However, lawsuit and boycott were also leveled in threat to the City Press, which published an image of the painting on their website. Threats of violence were also sent to the paper and Haffajee, and the image was eventually removed, with the hope that the debate over the issue could continue in its absence.

We have not yet defined a Mzansi way of maintaining a leader’s dignity while exercising a robust free speech or reached an understanding that a leader embodies the nation, no matter what we may think of him or her. Neither does it seem our leaders know that dignity and respect are earned qualities too.

We take down the image in the spirit of peacemaking – it is an olive branch. But the debate must not end here and we should all turn this into a learning moment, in the interest of all our freedoms.

There have been many notorious protests and objections to satirical artistic and cartoon material, such as Tunisian objection to the film version of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and the Muslim world’s visceral reaction to the Muhammed cartoons published in the Jyllands-Posten, but the ANC’s boycott is a more insidious and problematic issue: censorship performed on its own citizenry by the ruling party of a burgeoning democracy. Particularly in a nation like South Africa, where protest played a pivotal role in shaping a modern government promising freedom, the ability to satirize in art and the press, without government pressure, couldn’t be more important.

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Joe Izenman is a freelance writer and musician in Tacoma, Washington. He owns a lot of comics and he’s pretty sure someone, somewhere would be offended by more than a few of them.