Zuma’s Spear and egalitarian anti-racism

As submitted to Daily Maverick

On Sunday, Zama Ndlovu (@jozigoddess) tweeted “I do hope someone will write something about how whiteness should look at that piece of ‘art’. To be fair and stuff.” I’d hope that nobody does, just as nobody should write about how “blackness” should look at Brett Murray’s “The Spear”. Because both approaches would be prescriptive in dictating that it’s race which should determine one’s attitude to dignity, and which sorts of harms should be taken seriously by our courts.

It’s too late, of course – many pieces were published over the weekend by writers of various races, with some of the writers explicitly foregrounding their blackness or the putative blackness of their analysis. More important, perhaps, is that they foregrounded the whiteness of the artist – and the whiteness of thinking that it’s permissible to depict Jacob Zuma with his penis hanging out of his trousers.

This is the crux of the controversy. Not only freedom of artistic expression competing with a Constitutional right to dignity, but the clash of cultural norms that Murray’s painting has highlighted. As with Yiull Damaso’s painting of Mandela’s autopsy, those who think it inappropriate to depict Zuma’s penis talk about disrespect, and appeal to the communitarian perspective that holds that we are responsible for upholding each others’ dignity. Those who think the painting permissible tend towards the more liberal perspective, arguing that we don’t have the right to not be offended.

These responses are not reliably correlated with race – black columnists have been among those arguing that Zuma has presented himself as a philanderer, and therefore that he shouldn’t be surprised if we end up perceiving and depicting him as one. But I haven’t seen a white columnist arguing that The Spear is insensitive enough to merit an urgent interdict for its removal from the Goodman Gallery and the City Press.

The absence of this sort of critique from white writers feeds into the narrative of racism, whereby Murray’s painting becomes emblematic of a colonial gaze, where black men are savages, ruled by their passions rather than by intellect. That sort of reaction, though, is sometimes self-serving and inconsistent. I can’t dispute that it’s sometimes a justified reaction – there are surely instances of artists and writers who have the view that whiteness has some sort of monopoly on sophistication, with blackness representing some form of primitivism.

But the demand for us to respect cultural preference in these matters is self-serving in the sense that it forestalls any possible debate or reflection on the merits of the artwork. Not the merits in terms of quality and originality, which are a separate matter, but the merits in terms of the discomfort and self-reflection the artwork could inspire. The easiest way to justify poor arguments or mistaken ideas is to refuse to discuss them – and if it is a mistaken idea that presidents, parents, or people in general merit protection from these sorts of insults, playing the race card or the culture card serves to rule that discussion out of order.

Then, the reaction is inconsistent because it frequently expresses a prejudice of its own. Instead of defending the dignity of anyone, from an egalitarian anti-racist or anti-sexist perspective, we mostly hear silence when a Jackson Mthembu or Marius Fransman says abusive things about Helen Zille or Lindiwe Mazibuko. Or, for that matter, when Mazibuko is called a “housenigger”, or Zille is threatened with rape on Twitter – both of which occurred last week (but not for the first time) in social media chatter during the march on Cosatu House.

Is this because they can deal with it, where Zuma cannot? Or because they’ve earned it, where he has not? An answer to either question will expose deep prejudice on the part of those who think these things – so, better not to think about it. Or is it simply the case that because Zille and Mazibuko aren’t of a communitarian mindset themselves, this cultural norm of defending each other against insult doesn’t apply in their favour?

If the latter is the unconscious motivation for this inconsistency in what results in outrage and what doesn’t, we can ask a follow-up question: exactly which categories of human does identity politics grant special protection to, and on what grounds is this discrimination justified? I’m not talking about recognising that certain groups of people might have certain sorts of sensitivities – that they do, and sometimes for very good reason – but rather about whether we’re comfortable with certain sensitivities receiving preferential treatment in law or public opinion.

I don’t know how whiteness should look at Murray’s painting. But I do know that I could imagine a person being offended by a similar portrayal of their father. And I do know that a black person might not object in the slightest to Zuma being disrespected by this painting, because of the belief that Zuma has done little to merit that level of respect. Among this range of responses, though, it’s unclear whether we’re acting out of principle, out of prejudice, or out of reaction to prejudice – whether perceived or actual.

Zuma can by all means test, in court, whether Murray’s aesthetics and cultural norms should bow to his. For Zuma to win, though, would require demonstrating that his dignity has actually been impaired, and not just that his feelings were hurt. And I don’t know about you, but I already had the impression that Zuma was a rather sexual creature. Not because of some identity politics claptrap, but simply because he has “four wives, two exes and 22 children by ten different women”, as The Economist succinctly put it.

As for the painting itself, of course it’s disrespectful – I’d imagine that’s the point of the painting. You might think the painting in unacceptably bad taste, but your aesthetic preferences and cultural norms are of no more consequence than anyone else’s – at least in theory. In this case, where the ANC has joined Zuma’s case as second applicant, it seems that theory will soon (and, again) be tested – leaving us with one more reason to respect them both less.

Zuma’s Spear and the distractions of “culture”

An op-ed first published in the print edition of the Cape Argus, 22 May 2012

It’s always a mistake to think any particular source a reliable barometer of South African opinion. Each of them represents a self-selected audience, and evolve in ways that tend towards privileging certain voices, and certain points of view. Which is all just as well, because the conversations that have taken place on social media, and especially Twitter, over the past few days are cause for deep despair regarding cross-cultural communication in South Africa.

The conversation that’s dominated social media, radio, and the opinion pages of our newspapers is of course Brett Murray’s painting “The Spear”, which features a stylised image of President Jacob Zuma. More crucially, Zuma’s penis features rather prominently, in that Murray has chosen to depict a quite honourable member.

The Economist carried a column on The Spear which contained mention of Zuma’s “four wives, two exes and 22 children by ten different women”, and these simple facts could easily account for why an artist might think it appropriate to depict the President’s penis, regardless of the artistic merit in doing so. His public persona is already sexualised, in that he’s provided us with evidence of a sexual appetite.

Some might think that and artwork pointing this out is juvenile or in bad taste. But even if so, these would be reasons to not want the painting on your own wall, rather than thinking the painting should not be allowed to hang on anyone wall. The latter, more conservative reaction is premised on arguments about cultural norms, and the inappropriateness of depicting Jacob Zuma in this fashion.

The responses I received when posting that sentence from The Economist on Twitter made this cultural divide rather stark: from being accused of “negrophobia” for not also mentioning that King David had many wives, to being accused of inconsistency in not being a “pristine virgin” myself, it rapidly became clear that even though we know that Zuma is no stranger to sex, we aren’t allowed to talk about it.

At least, someone from my putative “culture” isn’t allowed to talk about it. For culture, we should of course read “race” here, because Tselane Tambo and Mondli Makhanya do seem to have permission to talk about it. And we can derive a simple, but very important lesson from this – no individual should be assumed to speak from or represent any particular “culture”, and that we are free to determine our individual point of view without being hamstrung by the cultural identity that others assign to us.

There is no “we” that has “a culture”, except to the extent that we choose to self-identify as members of it. The notion of “we” is itself something flexible, pragmatic and entirely contingent on circumstance. It is an accident of geography and politics, and massively open to abuse – especially when an audience pre-selects for a speaker which culture they happen to represent.

Arguments about the merits of individual cases get lost in the noise of identity politics, and the fact that identity politics is itself usually mere noise also gets lost. If it is true that it’s culturally inappropriate to depict Zuma’s penis (as I believe it is), why is that where the line gets drawn in terms of the sorts of cultural norms we respect?

Because the same culture contains elements that we (most of us, I hope) no longer want to respect, like homophobia and a patriarchy that is sometimes difficult to distinguish from misogyny. To put it simply, if we should respect Zuma’s wishes here, why should we not respect Patekile Holomisa’s views when he claims that gays and lesbians are enemies of their culture, and why should we not be silent when the Traditional Courts Bill tries to legislate a retrograde and sexist set of legal structures?

We’re not silent in these cases because we recognise that a monolithic interpretation of “culture” doesn’t address the reality of a contested political and moral landscape, and because we’ve decided to mutually address South Africa’s challenges through discussion and negotiation, framed by the liberties secured in 1994. Our Bill of Rights respects culture, yes, but it frees us to think outside of it also.

The relevant manner in which it frees us is through guarantees of free speech and free thought, including via artistic expression. Any one of us might not like Murray’s painting, and might think him grossly insensitive for painting it. We have that option, just as he has the option to ignore whatever offense might be caused in creating and exhibiting the artwork.

If one of these sets of options is to win out over others, it can’t do so through asserting cultural privilege. Cultural norms can be an explanation for why one feels offended, but they can’t serve as an argument for why others should feel constrained by the offense that you feel. The only sorts of freedoms (in terms of speech) worth taking seriously have to allow for harms to be caused, because it is often the harmful truths that the powerful don’t want us to hear.

Cultural norms can also be an explanation for why certain responses to The Spear are wrong for a different reason, in that they revel in Zuma’s discomfort. It’s undeniable that some of the responses to Murray’s painting have viewed the painting through a colonial gaze, where black men are savages, ruled by their passions rather than by intellect.

However, the fact that these racist reactions exist cannot mean that any argument in favour of the rights of the Goodman Gallery to hang the painting are racist. It’s not necessarily Zuma’s “blackness” or “Zulu-ness” that motivates the mockery – it’s also quite plausibly (for some) the fact that they perceive him as a philanderer, who happens to be our President (and further, happens to be black and Zulu). To some extent, Zuma has created this perception with his multiple wives and children, and it should come as no surprise that his critics will exploit this perception, no matter how insensitive doing so might be.

Ritual sacrifice and the ANC centenary

As submitted to the Daily Maverick.

Happy birthday, African National Congress. Congratulations on your centenary, and thank you for your tireless efforts to liberate South Africa from the unprincipled inequality that the majority of our population suffered under. As you enter your second century of existence, please consider eliminating various items of your own cultural baggage that are themselves unprincipled, and that become increasingly offensive within a modern democracy.

Besides the most obvious and most toxic tendencies, such as a patriarchal disposition that often seems inseparable from misogyny (as with President Zuma’s statements in his 2006 rape trial), or the apparent desire of some of your members to introduce new forms of racial nationalism, you could perhaps start with something small.

Small, but still meaningful, in that it would demonstrate not only a concern for the suffering of sentient creatures, but also an awareness that actions should be justifiable on objective evidence and impartial reasoning – and that nothing can be justified by an appeal to cultural traditions alone, no matter how longstanding those traditions are.

Please think about whether the 21st century is still an appropriate time to be slaughtering animals in rituals such as ukweshwama. I do understand that killing a bull or an ox with a spear is a deeply symbolic act, and that these non-human animals are not simply meat, but are instead signifiers of things like prosperity, or devices by which you attempt communication with ancestors.

My understanding here is of course not a lived one, and is no doubt incomplete. But you surely know as well as I that prosperity begins with gainful employ, and that the bread and circuses nature of some of what went on in Mangaung are a time-honoured (and no doubt useful) way of distracting those who don’t have jobs from that uncomfortable truth. These rituals unite, placate, and give hope for a future that might escape resembling the past.

Hopefully, you’re also aware that your ancestors are in fact dead and no longer capable of interceding on your behalf, no matter how many animals are slaughtered. Again, paying one’s respects to the dead is something we can all understand – but causing another animal to suffer as a method for doing so requires a justification beyond the simple assertion of cultural habit.

As I’ve said before, defending a practice on grounds of culture alone offers a slippery slope towards not being able to condemn anything at all. And we’d like to be able to condemn some things that are part of some cultures, like racism or sexism. We’d like to be able to say they are wrong – not simply illegal or unconstitutional.

So what else stops outsiders such as myself from saying that it’s wrong for President Zuma to have participated in the ritual killing of a black bull earlier this month, during the ANC’s centenary celebrations? The argument can’t end with silencing any opposition, simply on the grounds that they aren’t themselves part of the culture in question.

Perhaps those of us on the outside can’t say it’s wrong to stab a bull with spears, or (in more enthusiastic versions), to rip out its tongue and tear out his eyes. At least Zuma didn’t attempt to have sex with the bull, as Swaziland’s King Mswati is recently alleged to have done. Not simply because we don’t understand, but because we’re being inconsistent.

Or so one claim goes: those of us who eat meat cannot judge these rituals as wrong, because of our own complicity in needless suffering via the industrial farming of non-human animals for food. But this appears to privilege the relativistic defence of the argument from culture, in that it is possible to be a less or a more compassionate meat-eater, whereby those who are concerned with suffering can attempt to source their meat from farms which try to minimise it.

And even for the suffering that can’t be avoided in an omnivorous diet, there is still a noticeable difference between killing something slowly, tormenting it with the pointed end of a spear in a drawn-out ritual, and putting a bolt through its brain for the purposes of securing dinner. The former exhibits a bloodlust, the latter a dietary preference.

Wally Serote was quoted in the Mail&Guardian as saying “We spill the blood of these animals in the hopes that our ancestors will help us prevent spilling human blood in the future”. But what will stop us from spilling human blood in the future cannot be our deceased ancestors. It can only be the examples that they have set, and the lessons we can learn from those examples.

Perhaps we can best avoid spilling human blood in the future by continually moving toward a future in which needless suffering is always to be avoided, and in which we make our choices based on reasons that would be considered defensible, if not always acceptable, to any impartial observer. The ritual slaying of non-human animals, by contrast, is an artefact of the past.

Cultures can and frequently do change, even though these changes are sometimes slow to occur. And attempts to change them from the outside are typically doomed to failure, especially because they might be difficult to understand from a distance. In the 2009 case brought against King Goodwill Zwelithini, KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize and others by Animal Rights Africa, Judge Nic Van der Reyden said it was difficult for him to rule on the matter of ukweshwama as the ritual went to the heart of Zulu tradition.

And so it does, as evidenced again in Mangaung last week. But the fact that these rituals are not proscribed by law does not mean we should endorse them, simply through a desire to appear politically correct. For those who engage in these rituals, their legality means they are permissible – not that they are necessary, or even appropriate.

If they are not appropriate, discovering this requires giving it some thought – not simply asserting the privilege of culture, but rather, debating the issue in order to determine which cultures happen to have gotten this one right, and whether the others shouldn’t consider changing their minds.

Defaming President Jacob Zuma

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

We would all prefer to be able to respect the President of South Africa, but he certainly doesn’t make it easy for us. I’m aware that – as Ray Hartley pointed out in a Times Live editorial last week – some South Africans may believe that Jacob Zuma’s elected position demands respect, because he is something more than an average or typical citizen.

But there is no necessary symmetry between respecting an office and respecting the person who happens to hold that office. And whatever symmetry might exist is counterbalanced by the responsibility those in high office hold to set an example for the rest of the country – not in their private lives, where I’m happy for them to do what they like, but rather in how they think it appropriate to relate to criticism, and how they choose to deploy the resources available to them. Continue reading “Defaming President Jacob Zuma”

SA Elections: The DA’s “Stop Zuma” campaign

The DA’s “Stop Zuma” campaign has me (a historical DA supporter) concerned – so much so that I was compelled to agree with 6K, which is rare on matters political.

The DA probably has the best pollsters and analysts of all the SA parties, but they got this one wrong. I’m convinced that it will be a vote-loser. As “Dismayed” comments at 6000 miles… (linked above), it will only appeal to a small set of current DA voters, and perhaps turn a few current DA voters off too.

Helen Zille has done a great job of undermining the negative perceptions of the DA under Leon, particularly the perception that they were all about being “anti”, rather than building their own profile as a party fit to govern. The campaign (until “stop JZ”) was great, as it did exactly that – far less carping about what others were doing wrong, and far more trumping of the DA’s virtues as a party ready to lead.

“Stop JZ” is uncomfortably reminiscent of the “Fight back” campaign, easily caricatured as “Fight Black”. The undecideds who were thinking that maybe the DA is no longer a “white” party, and that perhaps it’s time to give them a chance, have now been given a firm shove away from voting DA.

To be clear: I do think Zuma should be” stopped”. Not necessarily stopped from being President, but stopped from riding roughshod over the rule of law, and stopped from undermining some of the values people have fought so hard for in SA’s short democratic history. But our best chance of stopping him – and cynical populist rabble-rousers like Malema – is to create a genuine democracy in this country, where it’s feasible that someone other than the ANC can win an election. The only power the voter has is that parties and leaders feel that they can be (and are being) held to account for their actions, and for as long as the ANC is guaranteed election wins, that’s not going to happen here.

To make that happen, we need to strengthen the opposition, and the opposition is not strengthened by confirming the prejudiced view of the majority of the population: that the DA is a shrill, reactionary – and white – party. I do not believe that the DA fits this prejudice, but can certainly understand why some people believe it. The average voter makes their cross based on these perceptions and prejudices, not necessarily on a careful weighing of options. We simply don’t have the maturity to be that kind of democracy, and nor do most of our population have the educations that those sorts of choices presume.

It comes as a great surprise to me, but I can’t say with any confidence that I’ll be voting DA tomorrow.