South Africa’s City Press has removed a controversial likeness of President Jacob Zuma from its website in an effort to restore calm, following a largely unsuccessful boycott over the weekend— called for by the African National Congress (ANC) party— in which copies of the Sunday newspaper were set ablaze and journalists reportedly received death threats.
The ANC party spokesman Jackson Mthembu has allegedly welcomed the withdrawal, but continues to demand an apology from Editor-in-Chief Ferial Haffajee, according an update on City Press' website.
Haffajee announced her decision to pull the image of Brett Murray’s painting “The Spear,” which depicts President Jacob Zuma with exposed genitals, from the publication’s website this morning, and followed up with an elucidatory editorial entitled “The spear is down – out of care and fear.”
“City Press is not and has never been an object of division; neither am I,” wrote Haffajee, describing herself as a “critical patriot” and a “great fan” of South Africa. She admitted to having perhaps been naïve in her failure to anticipate the rage and pain that the image– which City Press initially published as part of an art review and has refused, for the past ten days, to censor from its website– would incite.
“We are robust and independent, yes, but divisive and deaf, no,” wrote Haffajee of City Press. “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.”
In the course of the media maelstrom surrounding “The Spear,” the newspaper had become a symbol of the nation’s rage, which is not, she asserted, a role the media should play. “I prefer to understand City Press as a bridge across divides, a forum for debate,” she wrote, adding that the paper’s coverage of other critical national issues had suffered due to the scandal.
Fear on behalf of City Press journalists and vendors was another stated reason for her decision: after the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) called for a general boycott of the publication this weekend, Haffajee reportedly told the Sunday Times that one journalist was evicted from a conference of the National Union of Mineworkers, others (including herself) had received death threats, and she worried for the safety of vendors after newspapers were torched in protest on Saturday.
The boycott appears to have backfired: the final tally of how many copies were sold is not yet available, but the Mail & Guardian claims to have gathered anecdotal evidence showing that the newspaper sold out before noon in some areas, and that vendors experienced record demand as customers demonstrated their defiance by buying two or more copies at a time.
"Both in townships and middle-class suburbs, buyers bought the paper without any fear of retribution. Some said they had never bought it before, but felt they had to show opposition to the boycott. Others were regular readers who said the ANC’s call would not alter their behaviour," reported the Mail & Guardian, the South African newspaper of which Haffajee was editor in chief before she took the reigns of City Press in 2009.
Peter Bruce, the editor of Business Day, another South African newspaper, wrote in his column this morning that City Press was once “a poorly edited and rather bleak Sunday paper aimed at middle-class Africans,” but today “is the centre of the known media universe in this country…adored by a significant band of readers who you could classify as "new" South Africans.” The newspaper, he says, is “edited, with considerable genius, by a woman, Ferial Haffajee.”
Haffajee, says Bruce, “has quite fearlessly rebuilt the newspaper in her own image— making it more open to debate and to non-Africans— and become probably the country’s first celebrity editor in the process. The electronic media loves her and she loves them back. Thoughtful, conciliatory and gentle, she is, for an editor, wildly popular.”
In the column, published hours before Haffajee announced her decision to remove the image, Bruce opined that Haffajee should never have published the photograph in the first place, and called for her to take it down “in the national interest,” saying that President Zuma had been strengthened by the controversy, he and his advisors having “cynically used it to their benefit.”
A debate on whether Haffajee made the right decision has raged throughout he day on Twitter, and City Press keeps a running feed on its main webpage, as well as a quiz asking readers their opinion on the ANC's reaction to the picture's withdrawal.
It was a "Tweet that broke this camel's back," Haffajee wrote, when a longtime acquaintance of hers who is now a "businessman and soccer baron," Patrice Motsepe, appeared to post a snide comment on the social media site accusing Haffajee of leaving the image of "The Spear" up for long, lonely nights.
"I presume he meant its phallus," wrote Haffajee. "He knows I am single. It must have taken great anger to get a man I know to be of elegance and wit to get to such a point." It has subsequently been revealed that the account in Motsepe's name on Twitter is a fake, and Haffajee printed an apologetic Tweet and a correction on her site.
To explain why she did not take the image down sooner, Haffajee wrote in her editorial: “For any editor to respond to a threat to take down an article of journalism without putting up a fight is an unprincipled thing to do, so we’ve fought as much as we could.” In the end, however, "it’s simply not worth it and I guess we have made our point and must move on."
Tomorrow, the ANC is leading a march through Johannesburg to the Goodman Gallery, which displayed Murray’s painting before it was defaced last week.