The painting that keeps teaching – Eusebius McKaiser

2012-06-02 12:08

Dear Ferial,

You are obviously one of the country’s most respected editors.

Your heart is in the right place, and it is little wonder that, filled with compassion for the hurt many felt at the sight of The Spear, and fear that some might burn more of your newspapers, hunt you down or kill your vendors, you decided it was best to take down the image from your site.

You did the wrong thing. Political bullying and disrespect for the Bill of Rights won on Monday morning.

Media freedom is the loser, and our democracy is worse off for the decision you have taken.

Your accompanying article explains the relentless pressure you have felt.

It reads like a Sylvia Plath poem and seems like a pretty good, self-preserving reason for bowing to pressure.

Taking down the image was not in the “national interest”.

It is in the interest of Jacob Zuma, his family, his supporters, some in the African National Congress who feel insulted, and members of the public who feel the same.

But deciding it was in the national interest is not an exercise simply in determining how the majority feels and endorsing those feelings willy-nilly.

By that logic, it is “in the national interest” to chuck out the rights of gay people, to bring back the death penalty and to allow teachers to smack kids in our schools.

I think your decision to take down the image undermines your own front page story in last week’s City Press.

You ran an accurate, and very important, cover story that told us that not all blacks think the same and that not all ANC or alliance politicians think the same.

For example, Minister of Arts and Culture Paul Mashatile had a very different take on this issue to Gwede Mantashe and to that of Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande, who called the painting an assault on the black body. (Let’s leave aside the missing fact that Zuma’s body is his, not every black man’s.)

Mashatile’s tone was more measured. He showed no anger and he said that there was no ANC “debate” on whether to boycott your paper.

His own preference was for “dialogue” even though he, too, regarded the painting as offensive.

Similarly, brilliant old timer and ANC intellectual heavyweight Pallo Jordan also defended the artist’s right to artistic freedom while explaining it is important for artists to be sensitive.

And, in an interview in your own newspaper one of our best writers, Zakes Mda, was scathingly brilliant about Zuma’s inability to live with being offended.

Here’s my point. By climbing down on this issue you do all of us, including black South Africans, a huge disservice.

I am – cough – offended (to use the word of the week) that you have such low expectations of angry readers and angry politicians.

I am offended that you did not take seriously your newspaper’s own recognition that not all blacks think the same, and many of us have your back covered, including many ANC politicians.

The right to dignity does not include the right not to be offended. This is why Zuma’s case is legally impotent.

Your decision robs us of an opportunity to entrench, legally, the meaning and implications of artistic freedom.

The aesthetic merits of the work are beside the point. Bad art, like bad politicians, is allowed to exist.

I think your self-censorship feeds into a white supremacist history of lowering expectations of what black people can handle.

The modern version of “don’t teach them maths because they won’t get it” seems to be “don’t demand of them what you would demand of a cosmopolitan, progressive, educated white person – tolerance of artistic freedom – because ‘they’ won’t get it!”.

And, yes, I know you “did not intend” to say this. But you’re engaging in an “anthropology of low expectations”.

Don’t be condescending to black South Africans – hold us to a high standard and don’t take us seriously when we bully you. We’re trying our luck, and in this case you caved.

Next week Mantashe will be back, and then what?

You must be “brave’’ Ferial, as many say you are, and let go of the prospects of being liked by everyone.

Rather be respected for consistency and principled editorial decisions; it’s way cooler. Seriously, dude.

Yours in “robust debate”.

» McKaiser is an associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics and can be followed on Twitter @eusebius. This is a shortened version of his original open letter to the newspaper’s editor in response to The Spear’s virtual death

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