The portrayal of President Jacob Zuma in a bold painting titled The Spear has become the hottest story out of South Africa this week.
There are those who are of the opinion that the piece, which was later defaced, was in bad taste, others think otherwise. I am in between, especially if this is seen in the context of Mali's Timbuktu saint's tomb that militia groups recently defaced, plus graffiti statements that Kenyan artists recently splashed on a number of walls in Nairobi.
The satirical painting work by Brett Murray, a Cape Town artist, depicts South Africa's President posing, with his private secrets literally popping out of their space.
“Its rude, it’s crude, it’s disrespectful, it’s racist,” said Gwede Mantashe, ANC’s Secretary-General, who even attended the Tuesday court session that debated the painting, earlier sold to a German collector at $16,400, with freedom of speech and personal privacy in contestation.
On his part, the artist told Cape Times newspaper that the work was an “...attempt at humorous satire of polity, power and patriarchy”.
Interestingly, President Zuma has taken the painting very personally, likening it to rape.
"The portrayal has ridiculed and caused me humiliation and indignity," President Zuma is reported to have complained.
"The painting has generated a debate that clearly engages with important legal and constitutional issues," gallery owner Liza Essers said in a statement.
"This is over and above questions of political power, which formed part of its original dialogue.
"The extent of the rage has astonished me and upset me very much. I furthermore never imagined that this debate would transform into harmful physical action."
The artist, who in the past won accolades for his anti-apartheid work, was not quick to respond to the issues raised over the days in public debates. But even in silence, Murray seem to have opened up public space, for honest conversations about post-apartheid South Africa and what the future of the country holds, if viewed in the context Hail To the Thief-11, an exhibition that seems to question current ANC leadership and their manners.
Is it an elitist affair where you can easily depict the lesser beings and its okay until you touch the top dogs? some have wondered.
The portrayal, just like (in)famous utterances by the country's youth leader Julius Malema, seem to raise a number of issues that a majority of South Africans would rather ignore.
It has everything to do with power and how that is supposed to be handled, especially when a leader appears ready to sneak in convenient mischief, to keep it.
This is the context. After the fall of the apartheid system, South Africans picked leaders to lead. Three presidents later, four in fact, there are serious questions.
Mega corruption scandals have been reported. Service delivery is still an issue best captured by the unresolved toilet wars in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township.
Though an economic powerhouse in the region, South Africa's ousting of President Thabo Mbeki, a few months to the end of his term, also sent signals that the country, if unchecked could go the lawlessness way. The economy is also on a go slow, sort of.
The question then is, how can South African be kept intact?
In my opinion, artists like Murray together with journalists and selfless South Africans must do it.
How will they do it? Though shock therapy that will get leaders out of their comfort zone, to serve with diligence.
Unfortunately, there will be a cost to it, with people like Zuma suffering invasion of privacy along the way.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: wamicheni