A Stab at democracy

Racial tensions are bubbling in South Africa over a controversial painting of the president.

CAPE TOWN, May 30 2012 - There has been intense political unrest over the past few weeks in South Africa. Racial tension bubbles dangerously under a lid that is being desperately held closed by the last remaining voices of democracy. But it is inevitable. We all know it - something is going to blow.

Recently, a white artist by the name of Brett Murray painted a picture of South African president Jacob Zuma titled The Spear. The picture portrays Zuma in a grand pose – with his genitals (“spear”) exposed. Court cases, protest marches and calls for a public apology have erupted. The painting was later crudely vandalized and arrests were made. As a result of this painting, the battle lines have been drawn.

Let me give you a background about our president so you can better understand the context of this painting.

Jacob Zuma is one of South Africa’s most controversial presidents post the Apartheid regime. He has been accused of everything from corruption to rape.

Ok, this is relatively normal among politicians looking through world presidential history. Well, Zuma goes a level beyond the norm. He is an active polygamist with five wives (or is it six now?) and an alleged 20+ known children born both in and out of wedlock. A very cultural man, Zuma belongs to the Zulu tribe, the largest native tribe in South Africa. Apparently, Zulus practice polygamy (I’m a Zulu as well and I clearly somehow missed this memo).

Now as a country still very scarred by Apartheid and racial discrimination, we are a ticking time bomb when it comes to inter racial issues.

Because the artist is white, the ruling party which is majority black believes it is a racial attack. Murray, the artist, insists “its just art” and is entitled to freedom of speech and expression, as stated by our constitution.

But where do you draw the line between freedom of speech and hate speech?

South Africans believe in Ubuntu, a Zulu word for humanity. Ubuntu means we are all family and should treat each other accordingly. Where is Ubuntu in this painting? Black culture is very much focused on respect- especially for elders. The same respect we have for our parents is the respect we should give to our neighbor, our neighbor’s neighbor and to the neighbor’s drunkard uncle. This respect all forms part of Ubuntu. So basically the question posed by many to Mr. Murray is this: would you have painted your own father like that?

Saying that the president rules the nation with his penis is funny. It is. But at the same time, it is disrespectful to him and to his culture (because apparently polygamy is Zulu culture, although I’m still not convinced).

My point is that Murray is in big trouble, and quite frankly so is our democracy.

The threat of violence and civil unrest looms dangerously.

And for now all we can do is wait and see what unfolds in the courts and on the streets – that will truly determine whether The Spear will stay…um…up


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Sisi Lwandle

Sisi Lwandle is a journalist, a sister, a daughter and a South African. She loves God, people, telling stories and having cereal for dinner.

She loves music and is a struggling musician. By struggling she means she can't play much more than a few feeble strums on the acoustic guitar.

She spent a few years as a medic, and even lesser years in a City jail (during visiting hours). She hates having to describe herself in less than 1000 words. 

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