Ars longa, vita brevis
South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma is not amused, he has been stung by artistic license, he has long been the subject of “ridicule” by members of the fourth estate the world over. The king has now been stripped naked, attacked by paintings and caricatures by the likes of Brett Murray and Jonathan Shapiro and he would like each and everyone with a heart, character, conviction and a name to protect to stand in solidarity with him. His very symbol of famed virility has been zoomed to the whole universe to have a look at. He says he has been portrayed in a degrading and insulting manner by Brett Murray in his latest work of art “The Spear”.
The latest addition to the “affront” to his dignity, a news site City Press and the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg have painted him in bad light through a portrait showing him not dressed properly. In his affidavit before court, Zuma said he was “shocked and felt personally violated” when he saw the painting, which he says depicts him as a “philanderer, a womaniser and one with no respect”. To this end, Mr. Zuma is praying to the court that
the images of the painting be removed from City Press’s website, and the painting itself removed from the gallery without due delay.
In reply, City Press are asserting their rights guaranteed under the South African constitution and the justification under Tort Law and setting out a series of events and conduct relating to Mr. Zuma which render his arguments void. City Press also claims that even if a ruling was to be made in Zuma’s favour, it would not be enforced as the artwork in question is now in public domain. The artwork has been defaced but the image is already in the minds of the people, it has been uploaded by many websites and downloaded probably millions of time, it cannot then be entirely destroyed.
The question to be addressed is where to draw the line between individual liberty and the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression. What constitutes fair criticism? Does having a right negate the duty of responsibility? What are the limitations of certain rights? How do the laws dealing with slander and libel apply in the face of the supremacy of the constitutional ambiguity? In Zuma’s case, there are those who believe that he has wrought the tribulations upon himself by his conduct. They point to his dealings with Schabir Shaik, Lieutenant General Richard Mdluli, his admittance of having extra-marital flings resulting in siring a child with Sonono Khoza, a daughter of his family friends, his much publicised rape case and his cold shower admission and as a result of all these, he cannot claim the moral high ground.
The Zuma portrait has attracted a lot attention because of the race issue, a section of his supporters believe that Brett Murray being white in Africa has a free pass to do as he pleases questioning whether he could have the audacity to draw Prince Charles in stark naked. Not long ago we were treated to large oil on canvas painting by Margaret Sutherland in which Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is presented reclining on a chaise lounge wearing nothing but a subtle smile. He kept his cool, did not go ballistic, on his response via twitter he took it in stride, “Sutherland painting: we’re not impressed. Everyone knows the PM is a cat person,” tweeted his spokesman Andrew MacDougall.
Some of Zuma’s defenders, who believe that white artists consider Africans mere objects of art, not equal human beings and should not be taken seriously. Haven’t we seen DSK, Clinton and a host of white men being ridiculed by dint of their sexual conduct; Zuma cannot expect to be treated differently simply because he is an African with “African” values. What is good for the goose, is good for the gander.
Should all Africans support Zuma because he is an African? Of course not, to the contrary, we should instead dispel the notion that each African leader represents the interests of Africans, the majority of African leaders have forced their brothers into economic slavery. From a moral standpoint, in my judgement, Zuma is not fit to hold a public leadership post. As a president, he ought to be fighting for the rights of his people, not amassing wealth while his brothers and sisters wallow in poverty and misery. A president of a country should strive to maintain a squeaky clean record so that he may be at least a beacon of public administration in his country. Can we speak the same of Zuma? I am afraid not, he does not meet the minimum qualification for the national leadership interview.
South Africa has enough problems caused by an elite leadership, this is where their focus should be, improvement of healthcare standards and conditions, improvement of the education sector and elimination of crime. Nude or semi-nude works should not capture the nation’s attention the way the Spear had.