The M&G in collaboration with Oresego Holdings debated the limits of freedom of expression, bringing together analysts, artists and academics.
“We can’t see an African man with his clothes off but at the same time every 10 seconds in this country a woman is raped.”
Applause and ululation followed this cutting comment from a woman, who accused the country of selective morality, at a colloquium held on Wednesday evening to discuss the limits to freedom of expression, following the legal dispute and public protest over The Spear.
The event, hosted by the Mail & Guardian in collaboration with Oresego Holdings, brought together political analysts, artists, academics and representatives from the media and the ANC to debate the limits of freedom of expression.
But it was the views of the audience that said more about the mood of the national dialogue underway in the wake of the furore around the controversial painting.
Another member of the audience said that although she was “a 100% Xhosa girl that was raised in the rural areas” she never took offence when she saw the painting.
One man said there were two separate issues that needed debating – questions about the quality of the country’s leadership should be separate from the question on where to draw the line when it comes to freedom of expression.
Another said that better social integration over the past 18 years would perhaps have helped the artist behind The Spear to understand the possible consequences and interpretations of his work.
Reflecting on the events of the night, M&G editor-in-chief Nic Dawes said that for him the debate on freedom of expression was secondary. “What’s much more interesting is the discussion about race and how South Africans should talk to each other and how very different the lived experience of history is. It’s not just different between racial groups, it’s different within racial groups,” he said.
Dawes said the question now is how to weave out of that difference a country that is able to live with itself and its differences.
“It’s as important, if not more important, than the question of how we grow economically to lift people out of poverty,” he said.
ANC spokesperson Nkenke Kekana, who was a late addition to one of the panels, said that despite the high emotion revealed at the debate, when it came to the question of limits to freedom of expression “all roads must lead to Parliament”, as this was where an ordered discussion would take place.
“Emotions are not going to make us hear the other side. We can be emotional but beyond that anything that is said by the other side will be clouded,” he said.
During the debate, Kekana warned that those who were still in favour of the painting had not measured the mood “out there”.
“The mood out there is not for this painting, for sure-sure,” he said.
The painting, which featured President Jacob Zuma, with his genitalia exposed, striking a classic Lenin-like pose, was defaced shortly after debuting at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.
Despite this, the ANC went ahead with a court case against the gallery and the City Press newspaper, which had published the image, and called for a boycott against the newspaper.
Many viewed the painting as hurtful and racist and there were calls from various quarters to have it destroyed and for the artist to be stoned. The ruling party argued that the painting was insulting, disrespectful and indecent and earlier this week the Film and Publications Board announced that, although art does not fall strictly under its purview, it would seek to classify the painting.
Speaking at the opening of the colloquium, moderator JJ Tabane said he had been “speared out” over the past two weeks and hoped those attending the event would begin to tackle the real issues that are bubbling under the surface. He asked the panel experts to consider the question of how far one could go with both freedom of expression and freedom of artistic expression.
Some argued that the ruling party’s reaction to the painting was closing avenues for freedom of expression.
City Press editor Ferial Haffajee said freedom of expression and of artistic expression have “suffered severe body blows” in the past two weeks and that the media can “go a lot less further” now than it could before.
“City Press has felt the state’s jackboot and its imprints are on all of the media. It will take my paper a long time to get back to what it was to what it is today,” she said.
Haffajee said she expects the FPB will soon place an age restriction on The Spear, or ban it, or classify it as pornography. She also said that through recent events she’s learned that “colonial hurts and humiliations still live in today’s sons and daughters and so does apartheid’s scorn”.
“Our cruel dilemma now is whether we’re going to subvert today’s freedom to yesterday’s pain,” she said.
She asked the audience to consider the Traditional Courts Bill and the Protection of State Information Bill – both of which seek to restrict existing liberties – the burning of City Press newspapers at the weekend, the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal and the Press Freedom Commission report, which argued for co-regulation of the media.
“All I can say is, not beware, but be aware people, be very aware,” she said.
But former Azapo president Itumeleng Mosala went to lengths to describe his background, and the multiple influences on his views.
“What I’m missing in this whole thing is the political economy of all our positions, of all our perspectives and our reactions on these things,” he said.
Mosala said South Africans might have been better able to respond to The Spear if it had engaged with this issue in the past.
He said that while he would die for freedom of expression, he worried about deifying the role of the media in society, as it often got things wrong.
Journalism professor Anton Harber said that while City Press and the gallery had been bullied, the issue had been exploited opportunistically by politicians, “it didn’t come from nowhere”.
“The positive part of this is that issues of race, dignity, cultural inferiority and superiority, and dominance in society are out there and being discussed like never before.”