How to move things along

2012-06-02 10:51

My three hopes for our nation as The Spear (16N) saga evolves

Why have we spent the past fortnight discussing a depiction of the president’s appendage and the state of his dignity?

Was it the artist’s intention: is he setting our agenda?

That seems unlikely, much as I would like to think that an artist can shape our national debate in this way.

Is it because City Press took the image out of the gallery and put it on page 2 of a major national newspaper?

It got the ball rolling, but it was the ANC’s call for the picture to be censored and the threat that it would take the matter to court that catapulted it from being a minor news story to a national dispute.

For me, personally, the debate went through three stages.

Initially, I said rather glibly that the ANC was being “silly”: it might object to the work, but it should express that and move on.

It certainly should not be asking the courts to ban the work.

At this stage, I rather enjoyed the debate.

Jackson Mthembu told us the ANC was shocked and appalled, and this contrasted with the president’s silence on a number of other pressing social issues.

Jacob Zuma told us he had been portrayed as “a philanderer, a womaniser and one with no respect”, and that seemed fairly accurate and hardly a reason to ban the work.

The SACP youth organised a march on the gallery. Zuma’s daughters got together to issue a statement, and I thought they probably had to hire a stadium to be able to gather in one place.

And the sole ANC person to speak out strongly for freedom to criticise, debate and disagree was Julius Malema. But he is no longer an ANC person.

I enjoyed all this precisely because it was open and hearty public debate about race and representation, about the limits of free speech, about the role of the artist and the size of the president’s penis.

Stage two was a realisation that the work evoked a deeply felt visceral anger about representation and racism, and in particular the issues of dignity and respect, which had long historical roots.

One could not brush that off, particularly when the figure of Saartjie Baartman was evoked, that archetypal victim of racist dehumanisation and humiliation.

There is a difference, of course: Zuma is a president, with power, authority and wealth, and the point about Baartman was that she was a powerless victim of other people’s perverse interest.

Nevertheless, this and numerous similar humiliations involving nakedness, make up the history and that history is very present.

I withdrew my remark that the ANC’s action was “silly”, acknowledged deep feelings on the issue, and said that the ANC had done right by confronting and forcing into the open their concerns.

Let’s have the debate, I argued, but let’s not threaten artists or galleries, or try to have the work banned.

But events took a turn for the worse. A churchman called for the artist to be stoned. Then two men defaced the painting, and one of them was brutalised by a security guard.

The complications of our attitudes to race were on show on national television, as one had to raise one’s eyebrows at a black security guard beating up a young black man who was offering no resistance, but allowing his besuited white counterpart to stand around and conduct interviews.

So back to my initial question: why did the ANC and its allies choose to pursue this issue with such determination and fervour?

They proceeded to court, they called for marches, they called for a boycott of City Press.

But even if the image was removed from the paper’s website, it was now so widely available on other sites that there was no controlling it.

So why did the ANC not just move on?

There are two possible explanations, and I suspect both are part of the answer.

The first is that we were watching a Zuma re-election strategy: he is good at playing the victim, he has united the party behind him, or at least made it hard for anyone not to support him on this issue, and he has mobilised his core conservative constituency.

For all his shortcomings, he is a brilliant political fighter, particularly good when on the defence. And that is what we are seeing at play here.

The second aspect is that we have touched a real raw nerve in society around issues of male sexuality, humiliation and dignity – and these are deeply embedded in our history, our collective psychology, which is evident in the high incidence of rape and gender-based violence we see.

To ignore this or dismiss it lightly is an error.

Do we need to give greater weight to dignity, at least until there is a feeling that the most immediate pain and memories of apartheid are behind us?

This is a difficult question, especially for someone like myself whose instinct is to maximise freedom of expression and resist compromise on it.

If we accept that we need to give special attention to dignity and give it a heightened value and protection, we should also ask about the best way to achieve it.

Is it by law? Or by interdict? Is it by attacking artists? By threatening to stone those who don’t comply.

Is it by boycotting newspapers? Is it through social pressure? Through moral leadership?

We need to develop a new social consensus on these issues, but keep in mind that the law is not always the best way to get consensus.

There is a problem here of what I would call moral creep. Some protagonists have moved from issues of dignity to issues of disrespect. These two issues are being meshed together. I think they are different.

There is a long history of presidential respect laws in Africa, laws that criminalise disrespect for high offices, and many writers, artists and journalists have fallen foul of such laws.

We were in danger of it recently when a man was convicted for spilling his drink on the president, or a student was detained and assaulted for making a rude gesture towards his entourage.

I don’t believe we want to or can, under our Constitution, go near that. So one needs to draw a firm distinction between dealing with the dignity of all and demanding special respect for big-men leaders.

I admire Ferial Haffajee’s decision to remove the picture from the City Press website. A great fighter knows when to throw a fight, and when to duck and weave.

Emerging from this, I have three hopes.

The first is that we take the opportunity to pursue the debate about race and representation in the search for a consensus on the right balance between free expression and dignity, as required by the Constitution.

The second is that we can do this without leaving artists and writers nervous to say what they need to say, and free to mock and disrespect and stir things up.

The third is that Zuma visits a gallery and is photographed showing appreciation for our creative workers, both contemporary and traditional.

Wouldn’t that move things along?

» This is an edited version of the Nadine Gordimer Warrior for Freedom Lecture delivered at the Booktown Richmond festival last weekend in the Karoo

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