Had President Zuma and the ANC described The Spear as being in poor taste and hurtful, and left it at that, few South Africans would have disagreed with them. Surely there were more subtle, mature ways, for the artist to convey his message.
But they did not limit their rejection of the painting to this. Catapulting the row into a global spectacle, they announced that they were turning to the courts to have it removed from display at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, and an image of it erased from the City Press website.
They spoke of insults to the person, the Presidency and the constitution. This widened the controversy, and protestations about the individual’s dignity prompted a tangential argument on whether the painting, or Zuma’s own lifestyle, had damaged that dignity.
Tomorrow, a week after The Spear was vandal-ised, the ANC plans a march on the gallery to drive home its disgust at a painting which is now ruined. Last week it held rallies outside the Johannesburg High Court, where Zuma’s application to have the painting removed was being heard, and it embarked on a boycott of the Sunday newspaper. And it produced the race card.
The anger is genuine, there is no doubt. It was not an unfair response. But its intensification to fury is ascribable to the ANC in election mode. Still embroiled in a bruising encounter with its rebellious Youth League, those backing a second term for Zuma needed a rallying point. They desperately required a “them and us” climate.
Along came artist Brett Murray’s protest exhibit. And the thunder grew louder and louder. Here was a ready-made distraction from rising frustration at the pace of government delivery. And here was something of a foil for the fierce internal strife and jostling in the tripartite alliance as the ANC prepares to elect its leaders for the next five years in Bloemfontein in December.
This is Zuma’s ANC at battle stations, very much for its own sake.