There has been quite a bit of controversy recently about a painting by the artist Brett Murray, depicting South Africa’s president Zuma with his genitals on display.
The exhibition might have passed off largely unnoticed, except that the ANC put out a statement expressing “outrage” over the “disgusting” depiction of its revered leader and demanding the immediate removal from the Johannesburg gallery where it was hung and from the website of the only newspaper that had noticed it. When both refused, the ANC promptly applied for a court order for the high-court to force them to comply.
Before that that could happen, though, two of the president’s supporter all but destroyed the painting, possibly realising that in court, some of Zuma’s colourful past would be brought into public view.
In March 2006 Zuma was brought on trial for the rape of an HIV positive AIDS activist on November 2, 2005. His defense was that the sex was consensual. Under cross examination Zuma was asked, knowing that the woman was HIV positive, what precautions he had taken against being infected. He answer was that afterwards he had taken a shower. Since then, Zapiro, a South African cartoonist, has depicted Zuma with a shower rose attached to his head.
South Africa has 5.6 million people who are HIV positive, beating Nigeria into second place by 2.2 million. Leadership by example is not Zuma’s strong point.
In February 2010 Zuma admitted to fathering a child out of wedlock by the daughter of a friend, reportedly born on October 8 2009, three months before Zuma—a polygamist—married for a fifth time. The baby girl was said to be the president’s 20th child.
In a letter to the editor of the Economist, a reader expressed the views held by many South Africans:
“Once again South Africa has made the headlines for all the wrong reasons, this time over a gallery’s cartoon portrait of President Jacob Zuma. Like most decent South Africans, regardless of race or creed, I value freedom of expression, but take offence when it is abused to indulge in gratuitous indecency or the spreading of falsehoods. To my way of thinking Brett Murray’s painting of Mr Zuma as Lenin was his genitals exposed was in bad taste and culturally insensitive. It has also, paradoxically, caused an outpouring of sympathy for the man it was supposed to ridicule.
Many South Africans sympathise with Mr Zuma, who apparently felt personally offended and violated. But before we start looking for a tree to lynch the artist, let us be aware of the elephant in the room: Mr Zuma’s own conduct and the offence it has caused.
The crux of the matter is that South Africa will continue to experience much deeply divisive incidents as long as the ruling African National Congress insists on foisting this deeply flawed man on us. In case the party’s leadership hasn’t noticed, Mr Zuma is not just an embarrassment; according to recent opinion polls he is rapidly becoming an electoral liability as well. His behaviour provides satirists and artists with endless inspiration, and when comedians discuss the President they sound more like news reporters than stand-up comics.
The dignity of high political office is a two-way street. In liberal democracies politicians fall on their swords for far less serious missteps than have already been proved against Mr Zuma. It is sheer hypocrisy to expect respect from one’s subjects when one flaunts the norms and values most of them hold dear.
Leaders earn respect. They cannot behave like buffoons and then expect to be revered like saints.”