/ 28 May 2012

Boycott fails, but City Press agrees to drop ‘The Spear’

A newspaper vendor sells copies of the City Press on Sunday.
A newspaper vendor sells copies of the City Press on Sunday.

Editor Ferial Haffajee confirmed on Monday that the painting would be coming down soon.

“I just need a bit of time to do it,” Haffajee said.

She told Sapa she would post a column on the website about her decision. Earlier, Haffajee told Talk Radio 702 how her stance on publishing an image with President Jacob Zuma’s genitals had shifted. She said the debate had become a clash, and the publication did not want to be part of that. It wanted to be part of restoring calm.

She was also concerned about the personal safety of the newspaper’s vendors, and journalists, saying newspapers had been set alight over the weekend in response to ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe’s call for a boycott of the paper.

It will be up to two weeks before City Press has a final count of how many newspapers it sold on on Sunday, but anecdotal evidence suggests the ANC’s call for a boycott largely failed. But that may not prevent the ANC from at least partially getting its way, as attitudes towards the now-infamous painting of Zuma continue to evolve.

Sold out
Outlets in Gauteng and the Western Cape sold out of copies of City Press before noon on Sunday, with some vendors and garage stores reporting record demand. Many said customers bought two or more copies at a time, in a spontaneous show of defiance against the call by Mantashe for “all peace-loving South Africans” to boycott the paper.

Both in townships and middle-class suburbs, buyers bought the paper without any fear of retribution. Some said they had never bought it before, but felt they had to show opposition to the boycott. Others were regular readers who said the ANC’s call would not alter their behaviour.

Street vendors polled in Johannesburg and Pretoria reported no censure as they displayed the paper, and said tips from buyers were slightly higher than usual.

City Press said it had received only three reports of signs outside stores or workers telling customer not to buy the paper, none of which were considered serious.

“We are very grateful that it went down without any real trouble,” said Haffajee.

In some areas, mostly in well-to-do shopping centres, large numbers of the paper remained unsold into the afternoon. But an equal or larger number of unsold copies of the Sunday Times pointed to that being a matter of over-stocking rather than a customer boycott.

Unforced removal
Yet the City Press said it would this week remove the image of the now-infamous The Spear painting from its website after all. Haffajee said she would meet with the South African Communist Party, among others, during the course of Monday, and would post a column on the paper’s website explaining the decision.

“You’d have to be blind not to see that there is a level of political game-playing going on, and that there is some position bargaining here, but there is also a lot of very real and deep pain that has coalesced around this painting for some reason,” she said on Sunday. “We’ve had the big debates, and I don’t want to dig in my heels in.”

Removing the image from the website would satisfy half the ANC’s demand. It also wants an apology from the City Press for publishing it in the first place. That it may find harder to extract.

There were also some signs of a softening attitude from the ANC on Sunday.

Spokesperson Jackson Mthembu said the party was going ahead with a planned march on the Goodman Gallery on Tuesday, but would not demand the removal of the rest of Brett Murray’s exhibition Hail to the Thief II, even though its use of ANC imagery and icons has earned it a tongue-lashing.

“All we are saying is that we hope people can come to the realisation that this [painting] is insulting,” said Mthembu. “If people don’t feel the pain this has caused, maybe they didn’t understand when they did this. All they have to do is say that now they understand, that they are sorry that they caused that pain, and act like people who are sorry.”

Opposition plot
That differs substantially from party rhetoric last week, which framed the painting (and the entire exhibition) as an intentional, racially-motivated insult to black people in general, and the ANC by way of Zuma in particular. Various party leaders said the painting had been displayed in service of a Democratic Alliance plan to unseat the ANC.

But Jackson reiterated that the party would continue its boycott on City Press – including refusing to grant its journalists interviews – until the matter was settled, and would also not be satisfied by anything short of a firm commitment from the Goodman Gallery to not display the painting again, even in its vandalised form. Such a concession, he said, would be an important symbolic gesture and possibly a way of maintaining the peace amid a volatile situation.

“We are engaging with this on various platforms, in the courts and so forth. Other people, you never know what they can do when they are totally outraged. We don’t want to reach those levels where people are showing their outrage through doing things that all of us will be sorry about.”

The ANC, with the support of Cosatu, plan to gather at Zoo Lake in Johannesburg on Tuesday morning for a short march to the art gallery in Rosebank. Should the gallery apologise and drop its opposition to a court interdict banning the display of the painting, Mthembu said, the march would likely still go ahead as an opportunity to celebrate.

Disclosure: Ferial Haffajee was the editor of the Mail & Guardian until mid-2009. Phillip de Wet has in the past been a paid freelance contributor to City Press.