“The Spear” Controversy

My tales of South Africa would not be complete if I didn’t mention the recent controversy surrounding a painting called “The Spear.”  It portrays President Jacob Zuma with his genitals hanging out (literally).

Now, looking at this from the United States perspective, most people say “What’s the big deal?”  But we have to remember that the very first amendment to our Constitution protects the freedom of the press and freedom of expression.  It is something that is so important to us that we have gone so far as to protect the freedom to burn the American flag in protest, wear armbands expressing anti-war sentiment, and so much more against infringement by the government.  We also have a provision of our libel and slander laws that essentially says that, if you are a public figure, you are necessarily less protected against alleged damage to your reputation than the average Joe.

Not so in South Africa.  The South African Constitution has two conflicting provisions in this case – the right to dignity and the right to freedom of expression.  And, unlike the United States, the Constitution is enforceable against all people, not just the government.  So, in this case, President Zuma is alleging that the artist, the gallery who displayed the painting, and the media outlet that published it have potentially all violated his right to dignity.  On the other side, the arguments are that the painting is freedom of expression and should be protected as such.

But, as with most highly public disputes, I have been told that this painting is opening up old wounds of apartheid.  The artist was white, while President Zuma is black.  Apparently during apartheid, black men were described as being virile to the point of being animalistic.  Some people here feel that those old descriptions are being made again through this painting.  Still others look at Jacob Zuma’s history of charges of rape, polygamy, etc and feel that the painting is an accurate commentary on his life and personality.

Even more interestingly, this dispute is not divided by race – people of all races stand on the side of censorship, and people of all races stand on the side of free speech.  It will be fascinating to see how this evolves legally and, of course, socially...

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