The spear of the nation stays up

Did we think the image of President Jacob Zuma by Brett Murray was particularly beautiful to persuade us to publish it? No.

Would it be something I would hang at home? No.

There is a copy stuck on my office window, along with two others from Murray’s explosively angry exhibition of satirical graphic art.

Murray, now facing a demand from the governing ANC that he destroy the work, designed some of the anti-apartheid movement’s most iconic resistance art.

The copies sit on the window to display a moment of compromise at City Press.

A group wanted the image of an “exposed” president to lead our arts section, called 7, but too many people in our office objected on grounds that ranged from us being a family paper, to concerns about dignity and cultural values.

We put the image inside and ran a funny version on page 1, its indignity covered by a price tag.

The work was sold to a German buyer soon after the show opened for more than R130 000 and it will probably leave for good anyway, so why go to court to get it destroyed?

Why would you want to destroy art in the first place?

Our Constitution explicitly protects artistic expression as a subset of free expression, to which its detractors will respond as they have all week: they draw the line at art that impugns presidential dignity.

But I’ve learnt that the commitment to clauses like free expression (be it in art or journalism) is never going to be tested by still lifes of bowls of flowers or by home decor magazines.

It is always going to be tested by art that pushes boundaries and journalism that upsets holy cows, which is why our clever founders enshrined the right in our Constitution.

They knew our artists and journalists would, if we stayed true to the founding South African DNA of questioning and truth-saying, need protection.

In the past week – and in the one to come – we will hear again this clash of free expression and dignity.

Inevitably, race will be drawn into it: only a black president would be depicted like this, the race brigade will drone.

Inevitably, sexuality will be drawn into it: it is the stereotype of the black man and the uncontrollable appetite, they will wail.

We have been here before when Zapiro did his series on Justice being raped by the president and his gang.

Making good headway in the investigation into the meltdown in the police service – Mdluligate – this debate is not a distraction we at City Press have courted.

City Press covered an art exhibition, an interesting and remarkable exhibition that marks a renaissance in protest art, which we are tracking.

To ask us now, as the ANC has done, to take down an image from our website is to ask us to participate in an act of censorship. As journalists worth our salt, we can’t. Besides, the horse has bolted. We published on Sunday.

My own objection is personal and I state it so, for I do no expect all my colleagues to accept it. Ours is a sexually aware, satirically sussed and progressive country.

At the same time, we are a traditional society with a president who is most well known for his many marriages.

Our identity is not as simple as the cultural chauvinists and dignity dogmatists like to make out. Ours is, by design, a live and let live world.

I’m tired of the people who desire to kill ideas of which they do not approve. Besides, our morality and good practice is selective.

The man driving this latest nail into the ANC’s commitment to free expression is Jackson Mthembu, who was recently arrested for drunk driving at 7am on a busy highway.

He is no paragon of virtue and neither is our president, who has done more to impugn his own dignity than any artist ever could.

But mostly, I will not have my colleagues take down that image because the march away from progressive politics to patriarchal conservatism is everywhere.

It is there in the Traditional Courts Bill, which seeks to return rural women to servitude; it is there in a governing party MP, who seeks to strip gay people of their right to love; it is there in the draft Protection of State Information Act, which seeks to pull a securocrat’s dragnet over the free flow of news and information.

It is there in the march of polygamy; there in the push-back on quotas for women politicians and there in the people who want art pulled down because they do not like its message.

We are Mzansi after all, not Afghanistan, where they bulleted the Buddhas of Bamiyan because the art did not conform to what the rulers believed it should be.
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