In the summer of 2007 I spent time working as an election observer and campaign advisor in South Africa and learned a couple of things about the culture of the country. First, South Africans are shockingly progressive when it comes to issues of race, given that apartheid ended less than 20 years ago. Next, I learned that South African government efficiency still had a long way to go given the years of minority White rule stifled a great deal of innovation.
But the biggest thing I learned in South Africa is that nobody likes an exposed penis. Well, I didn’t actually learn that in 07’ but apparently this is a pretty important rule of thumb, since South African President Jacob Zuma’s penis has put the nation on edge for the last month.
This entire controversy began when the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg South Africa put on a show in mid-May to display the works of artist Brett Murray, a long time political activist and satirist. The centerpiece of Murray’s “Hail to the Thief 2”show was The Spear, a painting of South African President Jacob Zuma in throwback communist propaganda style with … wait for it … his penis exposed.
And that’s when the problems started.
The African National Congress (ANC) Zuma’s ruling party filed law suits in mid-May to have the artwork removed from public display, not just at the gallery but in all newspapers and websites across the nation. When that didn’t work ANC supporters got more creative. Last week two men posing as journalists defaced the painting by throwing red and black paint over Zuma’s private parts. Then on May 29th, about a thousand protesters supporting the president and the ANC came to the gallery demanding that the picture be taken off the website of a national newspaper and the gallery website. The gallery complied, but the suit by the ANC claiming the painting violates Zuma’s human dignity and calls to remove the picture from other media sources is ongoing. There is a huge racial undercurrent to the entire debacle and the question remains: who actually has the right to be angry during this art vs. politics crisis?
On the surface, a picture entitled “The Spear,” featuring a Black man with an exposed penis may conjure up notions of ‘spear-chucking’ and other racial slurs, but that’s in the American mind. You have to know a little bit more about the South African political context to see if this picture is race baiting or legitimate political criticism. Pictures exposing a man’s penis, especially an elder, are considered to be the highest form of insult and denigration in South African culture, a sign of his naked use of power being used in all the wrong places. Because the artist behind the work Brett Murray is White, many South Africans believe that he had a hidden racist agenda in his depiction.
Many believe it was a way of emasculating Zuma by exposing his penis. The reality however is that the President’s private parts have become almost as infamous in South Africa as Slick Willy’s here in America in the 1990’s. Before he was president Zuma was prosecuted for raping the HIV positive niece of a political rival in 2005, and he claimed during the trial that he didn’t need to take an HIV test because he ‘showered’ after the act. After using political and financial influence to beat his rape rap, Jacob Zuma continued a life of overzealous sexual behavior that is both legendary and embarrassing to many political elites in the country. He is an avid polygamist, with 6 wives, various mistresses and potentially dozens of illegitimate children throughout the country. When you combine that history with a collection of corruption charges longer than a …. Spear…. you can see why Zuma is the target of such political satire and criticism in his home country.
Despite his questionable record, there are still those in South Africa that defend Zuma and decry every criticism thrown his way as racism from ‘the man’ trying to keep him down. Think of it like a nationwide version of the loyalty some African Americans showed D.C. mayor Marion Barry despite his obvious crack addiction and corruption over 20 years ago.
The irony is that the white artist behind The Spear, Brett Murray has a long and recognizable relationship with the anti-apartheid movement and the ANC. He is like many White (and many Black) South Africans who have been dismayed to see the decline in leadership from Mandela to Mbeki and now Zuma and fear for the nation’s future. Many in the press and art community have come to Murray’s defense, none more prominent than Ayanda Mubulu, an artist who did a similar painting back in 2010 entitled “Better Poor than a Rich Puppet” that depicted several national black leaders (including Barack Obama) in less than flattering penis-exposed poses. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was shown with his exposed penis tied to the control of the Catholic Church and Zuma’s penis was shown held up by a crutch due to its excessive use.
No one protested Mubulu’s art, even though it was nationally displayed and well known. Which leads many observers to believe that President Zuma and the ANC are just feigning insult at the hands of a White man to curry favor with the Black majority that are still vastly underserved by his corrupt administration.
Right now the defaced painting is still on display and various government and social agencies are evaluating whether or not the picture is a violation of Zuma’s dignity or if removing the painting violates press freedoms or what age of children should be allowed to view the painting either online or at the gallery. In one of the best lines from this entire scandal a local reporter tweeted that during the hearings in defense of keeping up “The Spear” a SouthAfrican Film and publication board member said:
“It is not a penis designed to titillate. It is a penis that is part of a political statement.”
Who can have a problem with a penis as a political statement? It seems pretty clear that Zuma has been using his to make statements of all kinds for years. It’s just that someone finally had the creativity and courage to show it.