John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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South Africa: Zuma Painting Opens Freedom of Expression Debate

by John Campbell
May 23, 2012

A visitor photographs a painting of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma at an exhibition in Johannesburg May 18, 2012. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Courtesy Reuters)


The New York Times reports that an exhibition at a Johannesburg art gallery is pushing contemporary hot buttons. On exhibit is a large painting of a figure resembling President Zuma with his genitals exposed. The governing African National Congress (ANC) is suing to have the painting removed. The gallery and its supporters from civil society are claiming the right to free speech, which the constitution guarantees.

There are several special South African dimensions to this episode.

The ANC is using the courts. It is seeking the removal of the painting through the rule of law, rather than by other means. (The painting has subsequently been defaced, and, as a result, the gallery temporarily closed, but I have seen no evidence of ANC complicity in the vandalism.)

Zuma is black, while the artist and those associated with the art gallery appear to me to be white. Hence, for Zuma’s supporters there is probably a racial dimension. One of his supporters claims publicly that the painting feeds white prejudice that blacks are “over-sexualized.”

Zuma is likely to face a challenge to his ANC leadership at the party convention in December. He is a polygamist with four wives, at least twenty children, and was acquitted in a notorious rape trial where he argued that the unprotected sex – with an HIV-positive woman–was consensual. Hence, the painting hardly helps his image.

In addition, the painting is almost certainly deeply offensive to the evangelical and Pentecostal communities, which are growing fast among black South Africans. Zuma of late has been reaching out to both communities as he looks toward the December party conference.

So, it is about art that is offensive to many South Africans. It is also about Jacob Zuma. But, the context for its resolution remains the rule of law.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Nekoda

    I love the painting -for it’s style and use of colour despite it’s implication.

  • Posted by Erica de Kok

    For decades, White Afrikaans-speaking South Africans were blamed for racist behaviour, not the English speaking South Africans. The artist of this painting is actually a white English speaking South African. In contrast to his work lies the artwork of a White Afrikaans speaking South African artis,t born during the ‘Apartheid’ years, Idalet Pauw. She has developed a style that encapsulates the mystic cultures of the African continent in flowing form and radiant colour…It exuded her passion and her enthusiasm for her homeland and the weave of various cultural influences are unmistakable. Her work reveals a spiritual connectedness to the rich diversity of the South African spirit..

  • Posted by m z nagdee

    insulting and derogatory pictures should not be allowed . it is this kind of filth in the name of art that is offensive and irresponsible. The artest is clearly abusing the freedom of expression . would any moral sane person wish to see their Dad , son or loved one is this kind of picture ? We need responsible artists , news reporting and journalists in South Africa .

  • Posted by Minie Botha

    I am a Afrikaans speaking South African woman and the artist, in my opinion, shows a very insensitive approach towards the complicity of racial relationships in South Africa. Each and every citizen in South Africa should strive to contribute to nation building and not the destruction of relations already so tense. He should have known exactly what uproar his so called ” piece of art” would create. Makes me wonder ..maybe this was the only way this “artist” could attract any interest in his work.
    His actions also tells me he has no knowledge whatsoever of the psyche of the black nations of our country. His work cuts deep into the heart of the dignity and self respect pf the Amazulu who almost worship their leader.
    Maybe somewhere in our beautiful country somebody paid with his or her life because of his “artwork” in some form of revenge.

  • Posted by Adam

    As an American it is interesting to read the comments. I agree that the painting is in poor taste, but our 1st Amendment would undoubtedly protect the gallery’s right to show it. But perhaps there are good reasons to censor it in South Africa, given South Africa’s history.

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