Tag Archives: the spear

ANC silencing debate about power, patriarchy and the president

Brett Murray’s defaced The Spear stands as a monument to intolerance. After thousands of ANC supporters marched to the Goodman where the painting the had once been on display, the gallery has agreed it will not be displayed publicly again.

While representations of the painting now enjoy the ubiquity of the web, what price have we paid for the original painting’s removal from the gallery’s wall? In the aftermath of the fury unleashed by the ANC, will artists still dare to challenge and provoke? Or has South Africa accepted that culture and “acceptability” is something determined only by its ruling party?

It has become impossible for the ANC to mask its totalitarian instincts: if it hadn’t already, the mask slipped this week. When the party feels threatened, the Constitution no longer matters; neither do the courts: it is only the power of the raised fist to invoke fear and unleash retribution that is of consequence.

While opposition was relatively muted — whether in the arts, on the streets or the benches of parliament — the ANC could maintain the pretence of supporting the concept of a constitutional democracy, one in which robust criticism can flourish. Now the party is under siege, both internally (through its vicious faction fights) and externally, thanks to ebbing support, increasing disillusionment at persistent poverty and a growing political opposition.

Will a gallery in South Africa ever again be brave enough (or even be permitted) to display art condemned by the powerful as outrageous? Or will controversial culture be exported – onto the web, and to exhibition spaces abroad? Are our artists to become exiles once more, hounded for daring to question or expose?

Freedom is difficult, sometimes painful. Freedom guarantees being able to question, comment, criticise – even if by doing so insult and outrage is the result. Art must provoke, must make us argue and discuss – even if our feelings get a bit bruised in the process. If we are so fearful of causing offence, we will become blinkered; how can we search for truth, or inspire debate, if we are so afraid of the consequences?

“The norm” needs to be constantly unpicked and explored, and the powerful scrutinised. Not long ago, slavery, denying women the vote and jailing gays was “the norm”. It was through exercising freedom of expression, culturally and politically, that these practices were banished (although tragically in some parts of the world today these practices are still considered acceptable).

In a country in which rape and the abuse of women and children are rampant, it is vital that we have a conversation about gender, power and patriarchy. It is vital that art catalyses a discussion on the way women are treated, and a discussion about the need for us all — male and female, black and white — to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women.

The backlash against The Spear threatens to silence that much-needed discussion. The ANC’s and its supporters’ rhetoric implicitly suggests that commenting or critiquing the president’s version of masculinity and the actions that stem from it is simply taboo – especially if the critic is white.

If genuine freedom and equality for all South Africans is to be attained, no culture should be sacrosanct or off limits. Rather they should be interrogated and explored.

This week South Africa’s largest news site, News24, voluntarily removed an image of The Spear not long after City Press, the Sunday newspaper embroiled in a legal battle with the ANC over the image, took it off its website too.

News24 claimed it was doing this “in a spirit of healing and nation-building”. This is at best misguided. Nation-building is defying those who seek to dictate what is culturally acceptable and what is not. It is standing up to attempts to quash creative expression. Nation-building is fighting for the rights enshrined in our Constitution. In the long term, little can be gained (least of all “healing”) by surrendering to intolerance.

South Africa will not overcome fear by giving into it. The nation can only grow if the right to provoke, question and criticise is vigorously defended.

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The ANC’s bullying will fail to quash freedom

There has been much gnashing of teeth at the decision made by the editor of City Press, Ferial Haffajee, to remove a photo of Bretty Murray’s The Spear from the newspaper’s website.

When it comes to the media, the ANC has brought all its indignant fury down on one publication – it has been useful to do so, as its single-minded bullying is reminder of who’s boss, a flexing of muscle that menacingly reminds both the media and South Africans generally of the even greater fury the party can unleash should it take umbrage to a paper’s contents.

The ANC certainly has the power to intimidate the media, fostering a climate of fear, hysteria and hatred. Its behaviour can certainly inculcate a mindset of self-censorship amongst the nation’s journalists – which is so much easier and more effective than employing the cumbersome mechanics of official censorship, although through its artful manipulation of the Film & Publication Board you could argue it is using this approach too.

But what the ANC, the City Press and the brow-furrowed chattering classes have lost sight of is that this is a changed world, one in which the old mediums (print, TV) still have an important role, but are far from being the only means through which ideas and information can be conveyed.

Indeed, these entities have become absorbed into a chaotic web in which information (and that includes presidential penises or at least the depiction thereof) is being shared and streamed with lightning speed and astonishing reach.

The ANC might be able to scare the City Press into removing The Spear, but it won’t be able to do the same to the thousands of other sites that have posted the image, or to the people that have shared it on social networks or emailed it to their friends.

It is for this reason that the ANC has failed in its attempt to quash creative freedom, even as the party has exposed its contempt for the constitution which guarantees it. It will again fail when, in the months and years ahead, there emerges artworks, writings, films and more that critique, satirise, mock or hold the ANC or its leaders to account.

As the events of this week has shown, the ANC’s strategies to shrink the space available for dissent and freedom of expression might sometimes seem effective. But we need to remind ourselves that this space has expanded into the online realm and beyond, to where it is out of the party’s reach.

The Arab Spring proved that social media has become a remarkable, unstoppable force to keep information and free thought flowing; a means to challenge and criticise power. In the future, we will see this being wielded by more and more people as social media tools becomes more affordable and accessible. The massive success of Mxit in South Africa is an exciting harbinger of this social media explosion.

And, thankfully for our democracy, this means that the ANC’s control of the public broadcaster and its coercion of “old” media will become increasingly irrelevant.

The genie is out of the bottle – and we’re all the better of for that.

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