South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party has called for a boycott of the Sunday newspaper City Press, demanding that it remove an image of “The Spear,” a painting by artist Brett Murray depicting President Jacob Zuma in a Lenin pose with exposed genitalia, from its website.
City Press has refused to censor the image. In a May 18 column titled "The spear of the nation stays up," Editor-in-Chief Ferial Haffajee defended the paper’s decision as part of its commitment to the freedom of expression, which is enshrined in South Africa’s constitution in order to protect "art that pushes boundaries" and "journalism that upsets holy cows," she wrote.
"City Press covered an art exhibition, an interesting and remarkable exhibition that marks a renaissance in protest art, which we are tracking...To ask us now, as the ANC has done, to take down an image from our website is to ask us to participate in an act of censorship. As journalists worth our salt, we can’t."
In an official statement issued yesterday, the ANC labeled City Press "a paragon of immorality," and accused the newspaper of being "anti-ANC, the President, our democracy, and the majority of South Africans."
The statement further alleged that "the City Press newspaper, by continuing to exhibit the offensive painting has clearly shown its collusion to the indecent depiction of President Zuma which violates his right to human dignity."
The uproar began when the newspaper ran a photograph of Murray's artwork along with its coverage of an exhibition at Johannesburg's Goodman Gallery in its print edition, after what Haffajee described as a "moment of compromise" in the City Press newsroom.
"A group wanted the image of an 'exposed' president to lead our arts section, called 7, but too many people in our office objected on grounds that ranged from us being a family paper, to concerns about dignity and cultural values. We put the image inside and ran a funny version on page 1, its indignity covered by a price tag," she explained.
The wider clash is seen as one between constitutional freedom of expression and presidential dignity, and has brought racial tensions to the fore. In a case before the South Gauteng High Court, the ANC has demanded that the Goodman Gallery remove the painting from public view, and that the work be declared unlawful.
In yesterday’s court hearing, President Zuma’s Advocate Gcina Malindi reportedly burst into tears following a charged exchange about the case’s racial undertones with Judge Neels Claassen.
"Inevitably, race will be drawn into it: only a black president would be depicted like this, the race brigade will drone. Inevitably, sexuality will be drawn into it: it is the stereotype of the black man and the uncontrollable appetite, they will wail," wrote Haffajee, who has been at the helm of City Press since leaving the Mail & Guardian in 2009, and who was the first black woman to become editor in chief of a national newspaper in South Africa.
"I will not have my colleagues take down that image because the march away from progressive politics to patriarchal conservatism is everywhere," she continued.
This week, white businessman Barend la Grange and black taxi driver Louis Makobela stand individually accused of defacing the painting. Video footage shows la Grange painting two red "X" marks over the portrait's face and groin: one for the ANC-led government, which he reportedly described as "going in the wrong direction," and the other for the artist’s mockery of the president. The video also shows Makobela smearing black paint over the portrait, after which he is quoted by City Press as saying that he felt free, calling the artwork disrespectful to Zuma and to "our parents."
President Zuma said in his affidavit before court that Murray's painting left him feeling "shocked" and "personally violated," and that the work depicts him as a "philanderer, a womaniser and one with no respect," reported City Press.
In these videos by City Press, South Africans share their views on the polemic:
Photo credit: City Press