AS I WRITE, South Africa is boiling with anger, divisive anger. Never in the history of mankind has a society debated so heatedly, has a society been divided so sharply over a matter so private, a matter so obscene, so revealing.
Some white man, one Brett Murray, produced something to which one places a label as they see fit: a work of art for some; graffiti for others. Some even described it as an assault by some leftover of apartheid on a man who happens to be a president, a man who is an African.
All those multiple identities of the supposed victim gave wider meaning to Murray’s product — a giant phallus abutting, jutting out, or drooping from the made-to-fit rainment of an otherwise iconic representation of visionary, decorous leadership, a representation in the mould of the leader of the Russian Revolution, Vladmir Lenin.
With such a sensitive organ obscenely appended to this painting that clearly resembling one Jacob Zuma, President of the Republic of South Africa, Murray’s thing immediately thrust itself into a fiery din of public controversy sure to impart and guarantee immortality to it, sure to stand erect in the annals of South African and wider African history.
Wings of hate, wings of love
And with this new found fame or notoriety, depending of course on where one stands in the whole controversy, Murray’s thing increasingly assumed wings, in the process becoming real art both in spite, and because of those who angrily dismissed it as graffiti, becoming more or better art for those who saw artistic virtuosity in this bold representation from the very beginning. Those for it and those opposed to it alike read or inadvertently gave a profound social commentary from or to it, respectively, in the process vindicating the thing's claim to art, much worse, the thing’s claim to fame. Nor did its transposition to art diminish its direct or denotative meaning.
Viewers saw a real President’s real penis, never mind that it could not be, can never be given that Murray never had access or sight of it. And the offended President himself did not help matters. He took action in the name of invaded privacy, a complaint which seemed to suggest that indeed, Murray’s penis was his! And the angrier Zuma’s supporters became, the stronger the phallic painting became real, became the President’s organ! If not so, why would there be so much anger?
I can imagine the frustration of the ANC whose leader is supposedly maligned by Murray’s creation or creature: the more they opposed it, the more they validated its rich semiotic value, its connotative dimension. The more they got agitated by it, the more the President looked exposed! And of course anything that embarrasses assumes both referential and symbolic meaning.
Governors deserve brickbats
Real or unreal, there is no denying the thing has generated both interest and deep controversy, with some in South Africa viewing the thing as some nemesis for a politician who is a public figure, a politician who holds public office and because of that, daily makes decisions that impact differently on the public. Consequently, they argue, his person evokes deep emotions among the governed on whom his actions impact directly, emotions of revulsion or of admiration. He must thus accept all his actions or non-actions in the course of daily governance perforce come under the sharpest spotlight, for better and for worse.
Murray’s thing thus becomes a test of South African democracy, indeed an opportunity to see how leadership behaves when goaded, as happens and should happen in a democracy. This vein of reasoning concludes that Zuma must not be pitied or defended; rather he must take it in his stride, absorb it as part of the ups and downs of holding public office.
There is also a small, inconvenient detail. When South Africa under apartheid moved to the system of executive presidency, it removed the constitutional clause that protected the hitherto ceremonial president from demeaning slurs.
The reasoning was that to the extent that the new president was taking executive decisions, it was important that he became accessible to public anger the same way praiseworthy decisions would bring him joy, laughter and satisfaction. The Rainbow Nation could not be governed under intolerant tenets, without losing its high moral ground.
This compelling argument is still to reach my Party Zanu-PF which sponsored a clause that seeks to protect the holder of executive power, President Mugabe. The clause has not worked, indeed has turned people who do not have a proper mouth into instant political heroes, merely for hurling an epithet or two at the person of the President. Because of this law, a transient hurt (to the extent that it is spoken) gets immortalised through drawn out trials that follow.
Interestingly, all those who have committed such an offense have always opted for full blown trials, in the process generating negative coverage for the very victim of the insults. But that is Zimbabwe, a different country.
Demolishing a precious lie
Then you have the family, the Zuma family epitomised by the President’s own daughter who has weighed in, predictably in defence of her father. Her coming into the controversy brings in quite a private and devastating dimension to the whole saga, does it not? Is it not odd, nay devastating, that some white man, all in the name of art, has got children to view their father’s private parts or, if one is unwilling to suspend disbelief, to watch suggestive visual representation of them? And of course the hefty debate that follows!
After all, to all children, parents have no private parts, or if they do, have parts that cannot work, that don’t work, that should not work. More accurately, parts that should never be known to work by us, in spite of our coming into this world because they worked, indeed in spite of our mothers’ womby stomachs, saggy breasts, both from working parts.
Parents do not make love, still less fornicate, a lie we assert reverentially, with no expectation of contradiction by anyone, living or dead. Our parents, our mothers especially, are the only habitual, lasting virgins long after they bore us. They remain in pre-lapsarian innocence, a state of unsullied righteousness asserted by all their children, from first born to the last one who closes the door to all, to everybody, to everything but daddy and daddy’s respectively. Joseph Conrad called it a saving lie: that precious lie we hold on to dearly in order to get by, that lie whose demolition is sure to bring about our own destruction. You need it, keep it, believe in it, even against overbearing outward reality.
Today, Zuma’s daughter lives that moment where her precious lie has been demolished, resultantly feeling more naked than Murray’s thing. She is bound to protest. She actually did, but to a South Africa too excited, too angry to be silenced too soon against its still gushing emotion.
The new global citizen
Poor girl, her society has done worse than disregard her plea. It has institutionalised the controversy in a manner sure to make it linger longer, sure to immortalise it even. The matter has spilled over into the courts, seemingly inconclusively. The ANC will not have their very own abused, all in the name of art. They have gone to court at one level, while indulging in some calibrated protest, all to force the gallery on which this giant piece is hung, has been hung for public viewing, to pull it down, cart it away, hide it from public view possibly and preferably forever. They have decided to boycott newspapers from the City Press until the group removes the offending painting from its website.
That way, so the ANC believes, the infra dig will be repaired, somewhat. In this pursuit, the ANC has refused to be deterred by the reckoning that The Spear, as the piece is named — again controversially — has long digitally migrated from its country of both creation and revilement to become a stateless creature of the diaspora. And the more the ANC pushes this line, the more The Spear becomes more deserving of asylum, assuring it of many homes, many parents, indeed making it a global citizen that it already is. So whatever judgment the courts give, The Spear will continue to thrust forward, erect, defiant, undeterred, snotting at the ANC. Poor ANC! Poor Jacob Zuma!
Reading from court reports, it is clear the ANC had hoped to push forward a racial argument, a racial charge which would have made Murray an incorrigible child of unreconstructed apartheid politics, of an apartheid sensibility with its well-known mean regard for Africans, for blacks. Such an argument would have rallied black South Africa behind the ANC, something crucial for Zuma ahead of the see-sawing elective Congress scheduled for December.
But in court, the argument came unstuck. Murray — the accused — produced three black art connoisseurs who vouched that the controversial figure resembling Jacob Zuma, with its giant, naked, sinewy phallus humbly looking downwards, possibly in satisfied rest, was but a piece of remarkable art, art so great that it had, like all good art, provoked deep emotion, triggered furious debate, in the process pushing outwardly the frontiers of public discourse. Art need not please, need not demur, need not comport to the prevailing moral sense or sensibility. Or doff to sensitivities. Art profanes, treading where angels will not dare set foot. It can provoke, shock, detonate sharp emotion, embarrass, demean, etc, etc.
An age-old fascination
The artist has no obligation to power, particularly power so given to flaunting its own boundless prowess, including and especially in its sexual dimension. Is the piece not speaking to real excesses of power, current power at that, they asked. They raised another argument that was calculated to curry favour with international readers. Throughout history, human art has always been fascinated with the penis, which is why London, Paris, Copenhagen — all European capitals in fact, live and decline under the shadow of giant phalluses strewn all over grand squares, some even perched on holy spires. Including the priggish Vatican, itself the city of worshipful morality, or so we think!
They quoted Picasso, quoted Rembrant, quoted Blake, quoted many more who sit composedly in the pantheon of world art, both as human giants and as normative statements on art and its infinite limits. Art has no skin, haina ganda, and so cannot blush at the thought or sight of foreskins, presidential or belonging to more mundane beings. So instead of hypocritical outrage, why not appreciate and celebrate Murray’s artistic panache, particularly the arresting detail he gives to the limb, the procreative girth he accords this lovely rendition of thrustful African sexuality?
From attack to a plea, then tears
Predictably, the judge — thoroughly white — must have been quite grateful to have such an inventive defence before him. Those black testimonies gave the judge the leeway to quash the issue of racism, asking the ANC advocate how against such black-led testimony, the issue of race could ever arise. Pitted against his own, the poor ANC advocate had no choice but to admit that indeed race was not an issue. Elitism maybe. And he pleaded that artists for the beau monde needed to always bear in mind that the rest of society was not so educated, was not so refined in taste as to see art as art. A key component of his attack had been disabled, leaving him to plead for coarser tastes, coarser African tastes.
It was an admission that condemned a race, a people in ways more damaging than The Spear. A virtual apology, a virtual plea. Our plea for some sparing, we blacks, we Africans, against a clear, racial effrontery. Worse was to come.
The judge went further to ask how the court was being expected to slap a ban on a piece of art which was already in public domain, already being enjoyed worldwide through the Internet. Was the world not already in custody of the piece? So why punish South Africans, why deprive them from enjoying what the rest of mankind was already savouring. The judge was defending the continued availability of our wounded image, and doing so in the name of our collective rights as South Africans, as Africans! The already lamed advocate could not help himself. Or the ANC. Soon after, he broke down, in the process reducing ANC action to tearful haplessness.
The native hits back, lamely
Gentle reader, the complications multiplied. A day before, a white Afrikaner who professed not to like Zuma, or to belong to any political party, had moved into the gallery in which the offensive piece was on stubborn display. In vast swift strokes, he daubed the offensive piece, starting with its offensive giant phallus. He got away with it. Not so with his black successor who sought the same end. Before doing much, he was felled by a gallery guard — all black — who must have reasoned that the sanctity of private property by way of this white art was a higher calling than expiating injury to black Zuma. The dutiful guard would be arrested soon after, to answer charges of common assault. At the time of writing, it was not clear if the assault victim would answer to any charges at all, including the likely one of malicious injury to property.
The late Eugene Terrablanche ripped through black arses, in a clear homosexual assault. The victim was a black farm laborer, firmly indentured to white whims, white sexually deviant caprices. Thankfully, the black victim evened out, in his own way. Today he faces trial for charges arising from defending his own integrity against predatory white phallus.
Here was a nice transposition of race and role: a white Boer successfully defending Zuma’s honour; a black South African failing in the same endeavour, stopped by another black South African defending and asserting the sanctity of white property, which is white art!
More art would follow though. In retribution, sympathisers of Zuma produced their own drawings, two all told. One showed Helen Zille, the Democratic Alliance lady leader, all along well clad until one traced her down to her loins.
There, the viewers then met the drawing of a huge vulva in the shape of a broken shield, itself a symbolic counterpoise to Zuma’s drooping phallus which Murray dubbed “the spear” in clear parody of the ANC’s “Spear of the Nation”.
The second drawing was less dramatic. It aped Murray's piece, but with a Zuma firmly zipped down his loins. Outside the courts and gallery, South Africa continues to argue and to demonstrate inconclusively, in the process exposing a deep chasm so neatly cutting between races, between histories, between politics, between struggles, between rights, between sexes, between senses of humour, indeed between identities and cultures.
Deferring to white whims
I didn’t think the ANC thought through its actions, thought through likely outcomes, given the legal and psychological realities of post-apartheid South Africa. With its liberal constitution, its neo-apartheid bench, little was and should be expected. For a long time to come, the courts shall not be points of justice, points of redress, especially where litigants follow the colour line, with a white judge in the saddle, presiding. And of course an ANC which strives to come across as a civilized political party, sure to behave within the law as interpreted by white judges, shall continue to suffer mounting indignities. The laager has got a thin and sharper end of the wedge in. It has impiously touched the genitalia of the highest man epitomising post-apartheid blackness, played around with that genitalia, all to get away with it. Nothing is sacred anymore.
Through a charade of a trial, blacks have conceded poetic license to white provocateurs who masquerade as artists. Terrablanche ripped through black arses, in a clear homosexual assault. Murray was not moved enough to draw, to paint. The victim was a black farm laborer, firmly indentured to white whims, white sexually deviant caprices. Thankfully, the black victim evened out, in his own way. Today he faces trial for charges arising from defending his own integrity against predatory white phallus. But he did better, much better than the ANC which breaks down in court, to weep inconsolably.
Not too long ago, a white judge interdicted the ANC, through its problem child Julius Malema, from singing its own songs of freedom.
Widening gyre of infra dig
But the matter is deeper. Not too long ago, a white judge interdicted the ANC, through its problem child Julius Malema, from singing its own songs of freedom. Imagine a white court in America gagging blacks from singing “Gumbaya my Lord Gumbaya”: that indigenised song through which their forbears purged their suffering, their anger, their tribulations. Imagine.
This gesture by white law, white court, white judge, touched the very pith, the very soul of the ANC as a liberation movement. Incredibly, the ANC conceded, preferring to proceed by way of appeals to courts it does not own. Contrast that with the ultimatum the Boers gave during Codesa, over their apartheid-time anthem which had to be retained, which had to be sung in post-apartheid South Africa.
This column made a passionate case for militant rejection of this jaundiced verdict. No, the ANC chose to be better behaved, against a deadly encroachment to its civilities. Today the white world has grown bolder, and seeks to run the State it has lost through stilted decisions handed down by courts. I wrote about the same in the recent case against the State, involving Zimbabweans.
Being and consciousness through art
But that is not where the real tragedy falls. Against the new political dispensation, South Africa remains an apartheid country, the same way we remained Rhodesia until recently when the land came. The architecture of apartheid obtains in that country, undisturbed, unchallenged, nay, with blacks mistakenly believing all the apartheid glories have transferred to them, thanks to the alchemy of Mandela's rainbow. They brag about their first world citizenry, pointing to Sanlam which cannot employ them or their children. The deep chasms of apartheid remain. Of course with the entangled state of deep western interests in that country, one understands, indeed one cannot wish for a speedier transformation.
Against the new political dispensation, South Africa remains an apartheid country, the same way we remained Rhodesia until recently when the land came. But what hurts, what gets one to at times despair, is that today black South Africans are aroused by a painting of a phallus hermeneutically linked to their President, never by real issues of resources and selective access to them which, after all, grant whites the kind of cockiness we see in this Murray guy. They rise, rally around a fictional penis, around a fictional assault, while being dead and indifferent to real, material assaults they suffer daily. They are mobilised, actuated by irreverent art, never by irreverent economics.
For as long as the long apartheid gives whites a material basis for racial impudence, art will continue to mirror the asymmetry of power that characterise that country. And blacks, occasionally assisted by liberal whites — Boers or English — will seek to superficially daub expressions of this deep-seated, profoundly institutionalized effrontery, but nothing much will change. And Marx is always there to remind the ANC: it is not consciousness which shapes Being, rather, it is material Being which shapes consciousness. The artwork could only come from a Murray; the victim could only have been Jacob Zuma.
Nathaniel Manheru is a columnist for the Saturday Herald