I have deliberately avoided commenting publicly on this issue and this is mainly because I had not seen the portrait myself, until now and I feel that now is as good time a time as any to join in the discussion and highlight a few of my own opinions. There are a lot of issues that have risen to the surface since the painting was exhibited and plenty more still going unaddressed or rather they are being addressed but in a way I feel is unsatisfactory. The thing is that Jacob Zuma is a democratically elected (a privilege many states on the continent still do not enjoy) President of this country and when he was elected by the electorate he was already a polygamist & not just a polygamist – and to be fair that has been people’s contingency point of reference when “criticising” Zuma’s aptitude (or lack thereof) as leader – but one who had already stood trial for rape and for corrupt dealings and yet the people elected him anyway and put him in the position of leader of the country so therefore perhaps the people need to evaluate themselves just as critically as they do their elected candidate.
Yes the ANC’s delivery on most things has left a lot to be desired but it is highly unfair to imply that Jacob Zuma and his government have done nothing at all for this country since coming into office. It certainly does us Afrikans no justice at all to constantly knit-pick and highlight the negative aspects of our Afrikan leaders without ever celebrating or supporting the positive achievements. That said people have tried isolate the issues that have arisen as a result of this debacle and that includes the racist implications of the situation and it is naïve to think that there aren’t any. The portrait was created by a Caucasian man and it is claimed that its aim is to highlight Zuma’s inequities and inadequacies as a leader and these include poor service delivery which (as is implied by certain sentiments expressed in the discourse so far) has resulted in the exacerbation of poverty in the country and also it attacks his polygamous lifestyle. The focus on the latter makes this an added attack on him as a person and as a Zulu. The personal political exemplified. The artist named the painting The Spear (umkhonto) and has graphic of Zuma’s phallus. One would expect the artist to have called it Umshini (a machine gun) given that it is a machine gun and not a spear that is referenced in Zuma’s infamous “theme” song Umshini Wami if the criticism was really only directed at Zuma, which in reality it never really could be as it is an attack of an entire culture. Whichever way one may want to slice it, the fact is the painting ceases to speak just to this one Zulu man but to all Zulu men and Bantu and indigenous African men as the spear is not a weapon invented and fashioned by Zuma for Zuma alone. It is a weapon that has been used by not just to a single culture but by various cultures on the continent and not only as a weapon but also as a symbol of manhood and so in reality this painting not only speaks to Zuma’s avariciousness and salaciousness but the alleged avariciousness and salaciousness of brown men in general and the unwholesomeness of Afrikan traditions and cultures.
In addition, for all the undesirable things that accompany the practice of polygamy in Afrika, not just South Africa, especially in this modern day, it is still a part of a lot of ethnic groups’ culture and I must say I don’t take kindly to the western vilification of our cultures and traditions with no attempt whatsoever being made at understanding them first. Yes there are a lot of cultural practices that are more harmful than good and arguably polygamy is one of these but instead of continuing with the colonial practice of banishing and replacing with the more “civilised” western cultures I believe that people should first interrogate them in full. In the case of polygamy I really don’t believe in nor do I advocate its abolition but I do recommend a revisit of the practice, what necessitated it at inception and its practicality today including taking into account the issue of HIV & AIDS. I believe that we need to redefine how it is practiced and ensure that its continuation is observant of people’s human rights while maintaining as much of the cultural aspect as is Constitutionally possible.
Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives when it comes to this issue (and I don’t mean Jacob Zuma. It is the women in his life I am referring to in this instance.) and it is easy for me or any other progressive Afrikan, the Afropolitan or the Caucasian to judge this practice because it is something we could never imagine or choose for ourselves but for those who do make that choice, be they male or female, who are we to decide that they cannot make that choice? Whether they are the President of a country or a taxi driver. If the spouses are consenting adults who have reached this decision of their own free will who are we to say that it is wrong? If anything, I feel that gender equality and parity does not necessarily mean abolishing this cultural practice but instead involves awarding women the same right as men i.e. to marry more than one spouse, if they so desire and the potential spouses are all consenting adults. It is about putting a stop to GBV and domestic violence be it in a monogamous, polygamous, polyandrous, customary or common law marriage. With that said, is it really our place to judge Zuma for being a polygamist? Bear in mind, vilifying this aspect of his lifestyle (I cannot speak to any other aspect of his personal life) takes away the agency of his wives (including Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma) and relegates them to the trenches of the disempowered and the victim. Whether this was the intention of the artist or not, I cannot say and will not attempt to do so but what I can say is that is how it has translated to some of us brown people who have been following this story.
Another thing that leaves one with little choice but reach the conclusion of perhaps a latent racism on the part of the artist is that even if we just look at the painting as a criticism of Zuma’s failure to deliver as President, it implies that he is single-handedly responsible for people’s suffering in the country – the homeless being homeless, the poor being poor, the jobless being jobless etc, and this belief is naively supported by certain commentators such as Tselane Tambo. This totally negates that some of the issues were inherited by the leaders of the New South Africa and completely exempts all the other responsible parties, even those from well before Zuma’s time. I fail to understand what it is exactly people mean when they say that Zuma must start doing his job and run the country because I really do wonder what makes them feel he isn’t doing his job. I mean granted he may not always meet people’s needs or he may not do it at a rate suitable for them but is it really fair to say that Zuma is not doing his job at all? To quote a friend of a friend on facebook:
“I know that as Africans we can do better when it comes to Governance and Parliamentary rule, but we should not entertain the continuous drive to undermine the ability of Africans to rule. Such a perspective is not only an indictment on those who are ruling but an indictment on all Africans.”
I think this is a very valid summation of the implications of such a callous act of criticism and expression.
Which brings me to my next point, in as much as Brett Murray practiced his Constitutional freedom of expression, he did it at the expense of someone else’s right to dignity and that is what this whole debacle really boils down to isn’t it? Who’s rights are more superior than whose and why? The social networking world has been abuzz with those for and against the caricature of the President alike with those for saying that Murray is merely exercising his artistic and human right to express himself freely and make comment on the political issues in and of his society. The question is though was it really political or was it personal or was it a bit of both and is it really anyone’s right to denigrate someone else and ultimately (be it advertently or inadvertently) a group of people in order to make a statement? It is a classical case of one person exercising their right at the expense of another person in my opinion. Two sometimes conflicting human rights i.e. right to freedom of expression and right to dignity, have, not for the first time, come into conflict and the result is that a decision has to be reached about whose rights matter more than the other.
People have decried the legal action taken against Murray by Zuma and his children, as they too have been negatively affected and violated by this portrait, and have suggested that it is tantamount to censorship and perhaps in some way this is true but is Zuma’s choice to make a case out of it really wrong? A personal attack was made against him as a person and not just a head of state after all and it his right to do so since we are on the topic of rights? Were it you would you not also seek justice as he is doing now? And before you quickly answer that, whatever justification you may have, does your not being a head of state absolve you from being answerable to the same moral codes that we champion as individuals or groups and are you any less responsible for setting a good example to the young people in your own sphere of influence and can you say have always been but most of all can you say that you have never impinged someone else’s rights?
South Africa’s Constitution awards its people a lot of freedoms but one thing we must remember is that it is harder to be free than to be a oppressed as with freedom comes a lot of great responsibility not to mention a constant juggling act i.e. while you exercise your rights you must take care not to infringe on someone else’s. There are some positive things that can be taken from this whole mess, as with everything, because nothing in this world is ever completely wrong; even a broken clock is right twice a day after all; and that is we need to ask ourselves if we have reached a stage of maturity and if we are responsible enough to use the rights that we have and that we champion in a positive way that is meant to build and strengthen or are we going to use them in an irresponsible way in order to advance our own agendas at other people’s expense, never mind the collateral damage, becoming violators of other people’s rights and freedoms ourselves.
At the end of the of the day this is a real pickle we are all in because it reflects on society as a whole, both in a good way and a bad way. It has highlighted our own double standards and hypocrisies. How our own boundaries may sometimes be more lax than the ones we attempt to put around other people, as well as highlighted the advances that have been made in South Africa concerning freedom and rights and how much more work still needs to be done in order to really call it a truly free and democratic state. I personally, as a writer and poet, have also had to stop and think about my own expression and freedom thereof and what boundaries I have set for myself and what boundaries the Constitution has set for me. I have had to realise that in my activism and in my writing I have the responsibility to the rest of the human race, whoever they are, to respect their rights too. I have not always done this and I may fail to do so in the future but one thing is for sure, I need to strive towards being a writer who constructively writes her truths and does as little damage as possible to anyone else in the process and that is when I will know that I am truly free.