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.