Natural history of the present

Fear and The Spear

I am writing from the departure lounge at O.R. Tambo International Airport, waiting to leave South Africa after a flying visit to promote the South African edition of Sex, Genes & Rock ’n’ Roll, give a lecture at my alma mater, Wits University, and attend a school reunion.

Hours before I left Sydney last Monday The Atlantic published an article of mine in which I explore how inequality and legalized polygyny (men being permitted to marry more than one wife at a time) tend to poison societies by bringing out the worst evolved traits in men.

The timing - well beyond my control - seemed perfect for a visit to South Africa because the article was built around Jacob Zuma, that country’s famously polygynous President and it’s world-high economic inequality. I hoped to stir a little controversy during my visit, to stimulate early book sales.

By the time I got off the plane in Johannesburg, controversy about Zuma’s sex life had erupted. To my immense relief, the controversy centred not on my obscure article but on a painting by Brett Murray called The Spear. The painting evokes Soviet-era propaganda, depicting a Lenin-like figure with a Zuma-like head. And out of the figure’s open zipper protrude flaccid genitals that bring to my mind Robert Mapplethorpe’s Man in a Polyester Suit.

Shortly before my flight arrived, two independent vandals had entered the gallery and defaced the painting. They now await trial.

Murray’s painting was, in his words, not intended to cause offence, but rather “an attempt at humorous satire of political power and patriarchy”. Murray’s satire goes beyond Jacob Zuma and The Spear. That work was part of a broader exhibition Hail to the Theif Part II satirising the African National Congress (ANC), the party that formed the core of the anti-Apartheid liberation movement, and the party that has governed since South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.

In the words of one commentator:

A visitor to the exhibition may emerge with one conclusion: there is nothing left of the ANC. It is just a shadow of itself; having sold itself to the highest bidder or been destroyed by corruption, greed and black economic empowerment.

It would be impossible for me to convey, in a short column, the polarising effect that The Spear has had on South Africa. Front-to-back newspaper coverage. Incessant talkback radio. And an inevitable veering of almost every conversation to the painting and its defacement.

The issue has polarised on racial and socio-education lines. The majority of black commentators and protesters see the painting as a racial attack - part of the old Apartheid racism that dehumanised blacks, and linked to imperialist obsessions with black male sexuality and sexual anatomy.

On the opposite side, many commentators see the work as legitimate satire. They consider moves by the ANC and by Zuma’s children to have the painting removed from the website of the newspaper City Press (who first brought the painting to public attention) and, quixotically, all social media sites a threat to freedom of speech and a call for South Africans to censor themselves lest they offend the ruling elite.

I found the whole issue difficult to navigate. I certainly think a healthy, functioning democracy should allow the satirisation of public figures - even when that satire shocks and offends. I also have no doubt that Murray sought to shock and offend. But whilst he may not have set out to make a racist statement, I can see how his painting could easily be construed as racist. And in that I sympathise with those who are outraged.

The fact that South Africans are having this conversation, may yet prove to be healthy. All societies need to discuss the role of art and of satire. But it is too early to tell if the sides have stopped listening to one another and attempting to understand.

Jacob Zuma could have defused this situation had he one hundredth the deftness of Mandela. To do so would have showed great leadership and a commitment to free speech and democratic ideals. Instead, Zuma profits by allowing the racial fracture openend by this controversy to deepen.

The one thing I am certain of is that I am immensely relieved not to have been near the centre of the controversy, court case, defacement and protests. No matter how good that would have been for book sales. Is that self-censorship?

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