Reaction to president's picture painful
The Goodman Gallery has a painting at the moment of the president looking action figurish with his penis exposed.
Yesterday the page one item in The Times was a story about how 11.5 million South African children are living in poverty.
On page four the newspaper had a story headlined “Pride is all we have left” – about how the various unkept promises from government were playing out for a Gauteng community.
A while before that I was reading a story about how in the Western Cape there is a school where the kids have to use ice cream cartons as desks.
Recently the High Court found that our country is violating the rights of our kids by not supplying textbooks to our schools.
And I am ashamed. I am not ashamed by the fact that we have massive problems, that is simply the nature of a young country and such problems can be solved.
Nor am I ashamed that the president is being mocked in some art gallery somewhere. Presidents both good and bad get lampooned.
No what makes me ashamed is how groups like the SMME forum are silent on these issues that afflict the most powerless people in our country, and stand up to a man for the powerful.
We have a cleric from one of the Nazereth Baptist Church calling for the artist to be stoned to death (giving me yet one more reason to be glad to be an atheist.)
That is shameful.
If this is African culture, where we rally for the powerful and ignore the powerless, then The Spear is good, for it struck true at its shrivelled heart.
The president has the right to dignity? And where is the dignity for those children growing up impoverished? Where is the dignity for that community by the rubbish dump? Where is the dignity for that school learning to read and write on old ice cream cartons?
What dignity is there for a man who faced with these issues, quails at some random artist in Johannesburg painting his penis?
Maybe that is our problem, we dwell so thoroughly below the belt that we fail to engage anything above the shoulders.
Why The Spear matters (update)
We have a tendency to defend those who are fully capable of defending themselves, while ignoring the people who can’t..
Whether President Jacob Zuma’s rights have been violated by this painting is for the courts to decide, and he has every right to have his case heard.
And I personally think he will lose because that painting whether you like it or not is political speech. The courts will be reluctant to side with Zuma on this, because when we censor political speech we move towards dictatorship.
And even if he wins he loses. All he has achieved is that the gallery has gotten better advertising than it could have possibly paid for. Having the strength to ignore this sort of thing is part of what makes a president.
What disturbs me with this, what shames me is that in this issue is we have mass civil action on it, and yet in real terms it is an issue between the president and the gallery.
We have mass civil society rising up to defend the president, who is perfectly capable of defending himself.
A cleric was calling for death by stoning for the artist, because somebody powerful was insulted.
Yet with far graver issues afflicting people who are relatively powerless, we see the dynamic shift. The powerless are ignored, the individual merits of their cases glossed over. The calls go out for tolerance and calm.
And we see a similar situation play out – with the defacement of that painting.
The first guy to deface the painting was a white guy, he got arrested and interviewed. The black guy with the black paint got head-butted, thrown to the ground and then arrested.
If ever there was an illustration of what is wrong with the country, it is that disparity in treatment between the two figures. The older white guy was in a position of relative power so he is treated with a degree of respect.
The younger black guy got no such concessions. That is the problem at the heart of this whole issue, not simply racism, but the way we seem to defer to power.