Room for ridicule
Elected public officials are subject to public rebuke
The Republic is truly vibrant. A depiction of a presidential penis attracts the same intensity and rigour as a discussion on a youth wage subsidy. Outrage, on the part of some, even went beyond the dangling display to quibbling over the size of the president's member. The presidential spokesman, Mac Maharaj, sounding quite convinced, bitterly complained that the size was embellished. That got a female friend joking that some of the comments betrayed penis envy!
Equally intriguing have been the scenes acting out the public exchange. They capture both our collective aspirations, while reminding us of our captivity to our past. Consider the contrasting reaction of the security guard, a black man, at the Goodman Gallery, to the two transgressors who defaced The Spear: one a young black man, the other an elderly looking, immaculately suited white man. The security guard strangled the black transgressor, head-butted him and threw him to the ground. As he was beating up the young chap, I can imagine him murmuring with anger: "Uyadelela wena mfana" ("You are rude, young man"). He did not deliver any such violent blows to the white man. He just confronted him, and probably asked: "We mlungu! Wenzani?" ("White man, what are you doing?").
The defacement was an ironic, momentary display of transracial outrage that quickly gave way to deference to internalised notions of racial supremacy. The security guard could not bring himself to beat up the white man, but let loose on the young black man. Yet both were guilty of the same transgression.
The security man was evidently unaware of the symbolism of his actions. He probably did not register that the camera beamed at him would transmit visuals of his violent conduct to the rest of the world. The man was simply being himself, doing what he thought the moment warranted. It did not occur to him that he should repress his anger or resist acting out racial stereotypes. None of that occurred to the security guard, probably a decent, God-fearing man. And it would be unfair of anyone of us to have expected him to be conscious of public symbolism. He is a private, not a public personality. His is simply private employment, not service in public office.
My expectation of his conduct is different to what I expect of a public persona.
A public official cannot invoke private morality as a defence against a public critique. For starters, ethnocentric culture applies in a private, ethnic space. And, because of its exclusive application, non-kinsmen cannot be held to the same cultural standards. What one considers a sacrosanct cultural practice can either be meaningless or be interpreted differently by the next person. Take, for instance, the assertion by the Cape Town-based African artist Ayanda Mabulu that in his own understanding of African culture nudity is celebrated. That is why Mabulu painted Jacob Zuma and the saintly Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu naked back in 2010 and had their naked torsos displayed at the World Art Gallery. Note that both Zuma and Mabulu are African. Whose claim, therefore, is the more sincere? Who, of the two men, is the authentic African? Culture is subjective. And no one should impose his own, subjective interpretation of culture on non-believers. That is chauvinism.
A cultural argument against Brett Murray's artistic interpretation of Zuma's public persona, therefore, cannot take precedence over the artist's vocational expression. A fellow kinsman may cringe at the thought of replicating The Spear, but such sensitivities should not necessarily apply to Murray. The artist deals with Zuma in the manner that the president has presented himself to him, as an elected public official. Theirs is an impersonal president-citizen relationship, formed within a public space. To Murray and most other South Africans, Zuma is not Baba, to whom one submits as a child does towards a parent. He is an elected public official, subject to public rebuke, ridicule and even scorn by citizens. It may be uncomfortable and even messy, but the Republic, as anywhere in the world, demands it to remain vibrant.
Ours must never be a hierarchical relationship towards power. Power must be observed, but never revered. Questioning comes easy when the citizenry do not only defer, but are also able to ridicule those in authority. Public ridicule is an antidote to the illusion of the invincibility of those in power - it reaffirms the ordinariness of authority, making it easier to dispense with those who hold office when they prove incompetent.
Ethnocentric culture is not a defence for a president against public critique by a citizen. Murray's painting is not a commentary on the private citizen, Nxamalala (Zuma). It is a public rebuke of his president. The two domains - private and public - subscribe to different ethos. Public ridicule is a vital part of civil religion.