Nikiwe Bikitsha: The polarising penis
In Barack Obama’s biography, The Bridge, penned by David Remnick, one of his Harvard law professors describes his strengths as a law student in this way:
“If you are litigator, a critical skill is trying to anticipate and dissect the best argument your opponent is going to make, so you drill down and understand his argument as well as your own. That gives you certain humility, because it forces you to face the weaknesses in your own position and to appreciate that any difficult problem has, by definition, good arguments on both sides.”
I was drawn to this paragraph in the book and I kept turning back to it last week as I listened, read, watched and participated in different quarters in what has emerged as a very polarising debate in South Africa: Brett Murray’s painting depicting President Jacob Zuma in a famous Lenin-like pose with his genitals exposed.
It struck me that as much as we are a lively, opinionated and, as Joel Netshitenze wrote recently, “a noisy republic” which is good; we often don’t show the humility that allows us to examine the issue from all angles and listen to the other side with humility.
We seem to operate as if any divisive issue were a zero-sum game or a game of absolutes. It is not helping our public discourse at all. I’ve spent a few days examining what is an extremely emotive issue from all perspectives and soliciting varied views.
One of the elements which has made Zuma singularly one of the most controversial leaders we have had is his sex life. Since the days of his rape trial to his affair, and fathering of a love child, with Sonono Khoza, as well as his multiple marriages, his penis has unfortunately been at the forefront of public discourse.
Much of this has allowed President Jacob Zuma to become prime fodder for comedians, artists, and commentators. I have also previously weighed in on this in two or three columns and having made my point then, this is not something I would regurgitate several years down the line.
That narrative has been recycled with each titillating new episode involving Zuma which comes to light. The point has been made – he has several shortcomings as a leader and there is considerable disapproval of his polygamous ways, especially amongst the middle class across the racial divide.
But what is rather disturbing about Murray’s painting and the furore around it is that by displaying Zuma in this way, he is not adding a fresh dynamic to the already dominant and widely publicised narrative.
Through commentary of all sorts, the shortcomings – whether real or perceived – have been thoroughly explored and ventilated over the years. How does doing it now and in such a crude form in any way enhance our thinking or deliberations about the president?
The fact is that the president or a leader of a nation should represent the best of the nation’s aspirations. Zuma does not reflect the best of what we want to be - this much has been established. But when we constantly hurl insults and such crudity we all end up with muck splattered all over, a little dirtier than we were before, and the message becomes redundant and loses its potency through crude repetition.
Another view which has been raised has been the concern around racial stereotyping of the black man and his sexuality. There is a sentiment that the caricatures of political leaders such as the one by Murray and the subsequent copycat by cartoonist Zapiro are troubling given that both men are white and this reinforces colonial stereotypes of the black man being portrayed as being hyper-sexualised.
These colonial and archaic notions of the lusty black must be rubbished and dismissed as views of the past which we don’t want to bring with us as we continue, albeit at a limping pace, to build a new society. I understand and see why such a painting would stoke old angers about past representations. Yes, we need to be mindful of things which reignite old hurts. But I think that by taking umbrage as if that were a representation of the collective is to give power to this racist bile of the past. By dismissing it, it loses its sting. This is a portrayal of one man who through his own actions and behaviour has placed his manhood under public scrutiny.
What is rather surprising and disturbing is that an artist such as Murray – who would be well aware of those historical and racial connotations to such a painting – would, in the present context of South Africa which is quite racially charged, be so insensitive.
But there is also a great deal of hypocrisy among those who’ve taken offence to The Spear painting. I recall Zuma’s 70th birthday, where he posed with his wives next to a massive cake. A lot of the banter, jokes and commentary on Twitter was about how he would be cutting the cake among his wives or which wife would cut him some birthday cake and bawdy bar room talk of that nature. We knew the aforementioned cake had nothing do with the sort you bake. It is these same people who have taken offence on behalf of Zuma who were the ones quick to insult him on the basis of his polygamy.
We don’t have to like him or respect him but we don’t gain anything by constantly ridiculing and demeaning him in this way. He is not sub-human. His family has also taken offence at this latest foray. I felt for them because although he may be many things to us, to them he is an object of love, respect and affection and to see him in the painting must have been very painful. We all come from people.
As my family watched the news and the story and picture of the president was shown, my nine-year-old son piped up. “A penis is private, this is just wrong. It is insulting.” I tried to engage him further by probing whether he thought artists and journalists should be allowed to comment on any issue in the country, in whichever way we saw fit. He was dismissive of my attempt to introduce a rather sophisticated freedom-of-expression-versus-right-to-dignity discussion. “There isn’t anything to discuss, mom,” he retorted. “It’s called a private part for a reason.”
And that for my little man, whose identity and convictions are still being shaped, was the most important element on the matter. I respect his view. I see his point and that of many people I’ve spoken to.
I find the painting distasteful. The president’s penis is his business and like any other man, he deserves to have it wrapped up and zipped up. I’ve learnt that as a nation we are far more conservative than we would like to believe and that many of our popular views are often at odds with the liberal tenets upheld in our Constitution. Let’s be outraged and offended. But to seek to ban a painting, as the ANC has decided to do, means we really don’t aspire to the democracy envisaged in our Constitution. Let us aspire to be what our founding fathers had in mind for us in that document.