There’s been some controversy over a painting (“The Spear”) of the current SA President, Jacob Zuma. Zuma, amongst other things, has been known for his philandering ways. This modern polygamist has also been charged with rape. So, some rather irreverent soul depicted Zuma in a Leninesque pose, but with his genitals hanging out. What I’ve been finding interesting, and frustrating, has been the furor over the painting.
As an American, I might find the painting crude and roll my eyes at it. I might raise the question of whether it is an appropriate way of representing the office of President. But I would grant to the artist freedom of expression and consider the painting as critical of the individual himself.
That’s not how it’s been taken by many groups in SA. Here’s an opinion article I came across today: http://mg.co.za/article/2012-06-12-simphiwe-dana-on-the-sarah-baartmanisation-of-the-black-body. The article is well-written, but I find myself frustrated by how the criticism of an individual automatically becomes ridicule of a group. I’ve seen other pieces take the same tack. The painting is seen as not just demeaning to Zuma, but to his party (the African National Congress, ANC) and to blacks in general.
This is a difficult issue for me to work through. As an American individualist (and a white male who has never had to worry about being an oppressed group), I find the controversy ridiculous. Zuma is worthy of ridicule on this point. Nothing more is meant. The artist is not making a statement about black people, and to see it as such is simply being hypersensitive. To play the “racial stereotype” card is not to encourage appropriate sensitivity in the issue; it is to silence the opposition, to shut down discourse (not to mention focusing attentions on manufactured racial problems; isn’t doing something about jobs and education in black communities a better use of time?). Such censorship is its own sort of power play. And from what I’ve seen in other articles and comments, much criticism of any leader in SA gets met with the same charges of racism or disloyalty (and to be fair, the disloyalty claim goes as much for the previous Nationalist Afrikaner government as the present ANC one). How can leaders be be held accountable when one can’t speak out against them?
However, that is only one side of the issue. As much as I find the emphasis on group loyalty frustrating, I also lament the fact that there is little sense of the public good in discussions of American politics. Might that not be the flip side of the individualism I espouse? Loyalty to a group beyond immediate problems enables a group to carry out long-term goals; something lost in our soundbyte society which always wants the economy fixed now, within a single presidential term. And whether or not I sense any sort of racial statement being made in the painting, a large group of people do, who have had experiences that I have never had nor ever will have. Also, it’s not like Americans are any less group-oriented; we just don’t like to admit it as much. We come up with all sorts of nice reasons for “our” view, but this often seems to be after choosing our side rather than before.