Jacob Zuma embarrassed before his SADC peers by 'penis art'

May 31, 2012

The furore over the painting of South African Jacob Zuma with his penis hanging out of his trousers seems to be gradually dying down in South Africa. But there is likely to be lasting harm done to Jacob Zuma's stature, with subtle but likely long-lasting and debilitating implications on his standing in the SADC region, and in particular on his role as facilitator in Zimbabwe's long-running political impasse.

For now, the various South African parties involved in the controversy each seem to have found a way to 'save face.' The hard line stances of all have moderated, and no doubt important lessons have been learned about the state of relations between various groups in South Africa 18 years after the end of apartheid, and also about the extent of the historical resentments that are always lying just below the surface. It doesn't take very much of a provocation for those resentments to quickly come boiling to the surface.

The offending painting by Brett Murray has been removed from public display at the Goodman Gallery, where it had anyway been vandalized with paint by two members of the public, and from the websites of the gallery and of the City Press newspaper. That allows Zuma and his many outraged supporters to claim a victory of sorts, although perhaps a Pyrrhic one in an age where the image will forever be available on the internet.

But it will certainly take a lot more than that for Zuma to regain the 'dignity' he felt it deprived him of. That is what his court application against the gallery and newspaper at the center of the storm is principally based on. As his daughter pointed out in a supporting affidavit to the court action, in most African cultures publicly referring to someone's genitals, verbally or by 'art' is considered one of the most extreme sorts of insults. It is an insult of such severity that it cannot really be expunged with an apology. It is difficult to predict what they will be, but there will surely be long-lasting repercussions from the lingering anger of Zuma and his supporters.

Given South Africa's past, it was absolutely predictable and inevitable that the painting would be seen by many through a racial lens. For many black South Africans, it was not simply an irreverent depiction of a man with what can be politely called a 'colorful' personal life. It also was seen as a pointed attack by a dismissive white person against not just Zuma, but on his culture/ethnicity/race/people. Rightly or wrongly, it was interpreted as white insolence and anger against the whole idea of a black-led South Africa.

In the region, particularly in Zimbabwe, the other highly 'racialized' country, Zuma's peers are also likely to snigger at his 'humiliation.' They will interpret it as a broader sign of contempt of the black president/black majority  by a disrespectful, dismissive white minority that is still powerful, but struggling to come to terms with loss of total control, and of privilege.

To South Africa's credit, the artist did not have to fear being unceremoniously thrown in a dungeon or  disappearing. It must, however, be mentioned that both the art gallery and the newspaper that reviewed Murray's work must have been influenced in their retreat by the not inconceivable idea of some of Zuma's followers deciding to take matters into their own hands. But the point is that at least formally, the president has to go the legal route to seek relief, like any other citizen, for the perceived insult to his dignity.

Constitutional protections or not, it is extremely unlikely that any artist (or art gallery or newspaper) in almost any other SADC countries would go public with a similar depiction of their president. It would not only be foolhardy, it is such a cultural taboo to poke fun at someone, especially the president, in such a provocative manner that few would contemplate doing such a thing even if there were iron clad guarantees of protection. Even if there was no legal or political cost to pay, there would be many other sanctions that it is certain would be incurred by the artist and his/her 'enablers.'

So on the one hand the way the matter has ended in the short term does confirm South Africa's democratic, Western-style 'rule of law' credentials.

Yet at the very same time, at a different level there will be a perception in the region that the whole controversy is indicative of how Zuma may be head of government in South Africa but he/the blacks are not really fully 'in power.' Murray's controversial painting is the work of one man, but particularly in the ruling circles of SADC, and especially in those of South Africa-like racialized Zimbabwe, the wider symbolic interpretation to be attached to the painting and to the whole controversy will likely be 'look at how Zuma/the blacks 'allow' the whites to mock and insult them, as if nothing has changed in that country since 1994.'

This may be completely unfair to Murray but that is really now beside the point.What he meant to convey in his exposed-penis depiction of  Zuma is one thing, but most observers have looked at and reacted to it from their own vantage points. In the minds of many, long after they have forgotten Murray's name, it will be 'the white artist who insulted our black president (and/or 'us.')      

Zuma's several wives and his concubines and one-night stands were always going to blight his presidency. 'It is my culture' is a weak defense in this day and age. That Zuma has brought a lot of his reputational damage onto himself is not in doubt. But if anything, his regional peers are likey to be quite forgiving of that aspect of Zuma's character, perhaps even quietly admiring of it. But now Zuma's machismo has been turned against him in the most humiliating away, and by a white artist of all people! The many symbolisms to be read into the whole affair do not at all favor Zuma's stature amongst his African peers. Zuma, president of Africa's strongest economy, has been stripped of much of the regional/continental authority that would normally automatically go with his position. He has been left 'exposed' in many more ways than just the obvious.

South Africa is a powerful, influential country in Africa, and even more so in southern Africa. So whatever sniggering his peers engage in about his perceived weakness as a result of his 'being openly insulted by the whites,' his position as that country's head of state means they must continue to recognize his importance. But his personal 'brand,' his influence over and above that accorded to him formally by virtue of his position, has been severely, perhaps even irreparably dented.        

This will quite possibly reduce his ability to put pressure on the Mugabe government to implement its part of the political reforms SADC insisted on after the controversial 2008 election and subsequent formation of a  coalition government between Mugabe's ZANU-PF and prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC. Mugabe has continued to portray the fight between his party and the MDC as being fundamentally about changing    what was the racialized (in favor of whites) set up of the Zimbabwean economy, a task that similarly inevitably awaits South Africa.

Mugabe spares no effort to cast the MDC as a front for whites still pining for their privileged status. That is the basis/excuse for denying the MDC full recognition as a legitimate party with as much right to rule as Mugabe's party. A big part of ZUMA's job as SADC mediator in Zimbabwe is to put pressure on Mugabe and ZANU-PF for the political/electoral playing field to be even, to avoid a repeat of the messy election of 2008.

At some level, spoken and unspoken, part of the response of Mugabe and ZANU-PF to Zuma's pressures will be to say 'the MDC are lackeys of whites who want to reverse their post-independence losses; just as the whites in your country resist and resent post-apartheid transformation, as 'they' demonstrated to you with that mocking painting of you with your dick hanging out of your trousers.'

These may all be very broad, even crude brush strokes, but so charged are racial feelings in southern Africa that it would be a mistake to dismiss their power and influence. One of the many effects of Murray's painting is to strengthen Mugabe's narrative of leading a hard struggle to transform apartheid societies, in the face of continuing strong opposition by local whites, their black 'puppets' (MDC) and their international supporters (the Western world.)

Mugabe and his supporters are likely to say, 'Zuma, do you now see what you are really up against in trying to transform your society? We faced the same white resistance that you are now facing, and we decided to take very harsh measures, which is why we got into such trouble with the Western world, and why we will not allow those puppets of the old order/whites, to push us out of power. You are now being demonized and psychological warfare in the form of 'art' waged against you in the same way the whole Western world waged a kind of warfare against us for trying to reverse our country's old racial pecking order.'

Zuma will now not only find it harder to counter this Mugabe-style racial narrative of the resistance to post-colonial, post-apartheid transformation in countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa, it would not at all be surprising if Zuma himself will come around more to this line of thinking in the wake of the 'penis-art' furore.

One thing is for sure: in many circles in SADC, Zuma may have more sympathy for what he has to put up with from those sections of his society who do not consider him fit to rule South Africa. But he will likely also  be held in lower regard for what many will see as weakness in the face of extreme provocation by those who it is perceived not only despise him, but reject and resent the whole idea of black majority rule.

The Zimbabwe Review  



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