Art isn’t really a big deal round here. Sure, the big cities have a gallery or two, and like every country we do have a community of both artists and art lovers, but the vast majority of us, even those who are better educated and better off, are about as likely to pop into a gallery over the weekend as we are to attempt the world naked backward-running record. We don’t see anything fundamentally wrong with it, it just doesn’t occur to us. Except for last year. Last year, we all became rabid art critics for a month or two.
There is an artist out here called Brett Murray. I had never heard of him before, but apparently he had had some success, both here and overseas. He had an exhibition, coincidentally round the corner from where I worked, called “Hail to the Thief”. As I have said before, I’m no art critic, but I didn’t think it was particularly good. It was basically just a series of visual jokes and digs at our ruling party.
There were ANC badges with “For Sale” Stickers attached. There were posters echoing South Africa’s struggle for liberation, but instead of demands for freedom and equality, there were demands for Chivas Regal, BMW’s, and bribes. Like I say, I wasn’t blown away. It was all too obvious. There was no subtlety to it. But up against one wall, in boldly contrasting black and red, there was a bombshell. It was called “The Spear”. It will seem familiar to you, because you’ve seen this;
There he is. Lenin. The man of the people. The great leader, thrusting himself boldly into the future. He is imposing. Defiant. Heroic. Even godlike.
Here was our version;
There he is. Zuma. The man of the people. The great leader, thrusting himself boldly into the future. He is imposing. Defiant. Heroic. Even godlike. And he has his dong out.
This should come as no surprise. The man is in danger of becoming a parody of himself. Despite being rather busy as the president, Zuma has a quite staggering after-hours programme. His sex-life would exhaust the average twenty-year-old. Zuma is seventy.
He has, as we speak, four wives. One would think that that would, at his age, seem like rather too much nocturnal company. It isn’t enough. He’s engaged to be married again. That isn’t enough either, it would seem. You see, our President has fourteen children by his wives. But he has over twenty two children. They keep popping out of the woodwork.
When he was charged with rape, the original judge had to recuse himself because it turned out Zuma had fathered a child by his sister. He had another two children with a businesswoman in Pietermaritzburg. And another three with a woman in Jo’burg. And another one with a woman in Richards Bay. And he’s just had another with the daughter of a famous football manager. At some point, people were going to start pointing and laughing. And point and laugh we did.
That’s all this picture is. It’s a not particularly clever visual joke. He can’t seem to keep it in his pants.
But then something odd happened. The picture found its way out of the rarefied halls of the gallery and into the public domain. The response was fascinating.
South Africa has eleven official languages. There are black people, white people, Indian people, coloured people (that’s what mixed race people call themselves round here). We all think we know each other; that we get along. And for the most part we do. But every now and then, something happens that reminds us that we don’t really know each other at all. This picture was one of them.
Because the response was rage. We have grown accustomed to the ANC’s almost comically hyperbolic responses to minor slights and offences. But this was different. Something bigger lay underneath this. And at first, we didn’t see it.
The arty types began to make a bit of noise about the integrity of the message and the value of art as a form of protest. The rest of the educated classes mumbled that if he didn’t want people seeing his dick, he shouldn’t be showing it to quite so many people. And the masses were incandescent. This was no theatrical posturing by Zuma’s party. I spoke to quite a few people about this. Working class black people. They were genuinely angry. They were hurt. They began to mutter about racism. South Africa’s tired and battered old beast raised its ugly, battle-scarred head. It was about race . Again.
It was, they told me, about respect. And I think, in retrospect, it was. And it wasn’t about respect for Zuma the man. It was about a deeply ingrained tenet of African culture. You respect your elders. Always. Because they are your elders. You respect your leaders. Always. Because they are your leaders. You do not, no matter what they have done, draw pictures of them with their dongs hanging out.
It’s easy to forget that this is not an African thing. It’s universal. The words wise and old still fit comfortably together. Honour thy father and thy mother. There are those of us who have been freed, by education and comfort, to think more critically, to decide for ourselves who to respect or not. To feel that respect should be earned. But that is a new and radical idea. And most of the world doesn’t think like that.
And so we all stood at the brink of something nasty. Protests were organised. Threats were made. Threats of legal action. Threats of violence. The Film and Publications Board gave the picture an age restriction. The newspaper that printed the picture was threatened with a boycott. And then something wonderful happened. Something that could only happen here.
A young black man went into the gallery where the picture hung. He must have been nervous. He was a simple man, a taxi driver, not the sort who would have been into a gallery before. And he had a secret. He had a pot of black paint. He was going to sort it all out. He was going to destroy the cause of all this drama. He came to the offending picture and stood before it. His heart must have been in his mouth, his hands sweating. He had never done anything like this before. His hand gripped the pot under his coat and he began a tentative step forward. And then a fifty-year-old white man in a tweed coat stepped out of the crowd next to him and spray-painted a cross over the offending dong.
It wasn’t a team effort. The two had never met. I have always wondered what the taxi driver must have thought. I suspect it was something like “Screw you! I wanted to do that!” But he was not put off for long. He hauled out his pot and got to work. And there they stood for one perfect moment, together, slaying the beast. And then the police took them away. But only after they had made us South Africa again.
When we woke up the next day, it was all over. The people who do that sort of thing for a living or a hobby kept up their posturing and postulating. Open letters were written. Interviews about artistic freedom and social commentary were conducted. There were denials, recriminations, criticisms. Some enterprising soul even found a Zuma dong painting done by a black person, to show that it wasn’t a race thing after all. Just a dong thing. But ugly edge was gone, and the rest of just heaved a sigh of relief and went on with our lives.
I don’t think we even learned anything. We still happily laugh at the President’s dong and what he does with it. We still misunderstand each other sometimes. And the beast has not been slain. There are too many issues here that we have never really dealt with. But we kept it at bay for another day, and that has to be a good thing.
And maybe next time it comes roaring towards us we’ll take a deep breath and give each other a nod and a wink before we rush into the fray, and remember that we don’t need to know each other. We don’t need to understand each other. We just need to remember that the good things happen when, for just a second, we stand together to beat it back. Before the police take us away.