There is a popular slogan of the ruling party which goes as follows: “ANC leads.” It is not an empty statement.
The vigour and conviction with which members say the slogan – at rallies, celebrations or funerals – confirms the strong affinity that cadres of the movement feel towards the ruling party.
In light of the unravelling brouhaha around the Brett Murray painting, The Spear, and the flurry of vitriolic responses from ANC quarters laced with threats of violence, I found myself mulling over the question: is the ANC really leading?
Perhaps I should rather phrase the question thus: how effectively is the ANC leading our non-sexist, non-racial, democratic society?
ANC bigwigs Gwede Mantashe and Jackson Mthembu – who have been at the forefront of the vilification of Brett Murray’s painting, which depicts the president with his genitals exposed – might be doing their party more harm than the painting is.
From the outset, let me nail my colours to the mast: I find the Murray painting offensive, misguided and in bad taste.
Our democracy is still nascent, so exercising a greater care and appreciation of our deep ideological and cultural divides would have been highly commendable in this case.
One of the persistent challenges facing the new South Africa is our endeavour to find each other across the racial divide.
After more than 300 years of leading separate and unequal lives within the same country, Nelson Mandela’s path to reconciliation deserves to be extended.
In that way, as Steve Biko once said, “there would be a place for all of us at the rendezvous of victory”.
Zuma might be a constant object of ridicule to his detractors, but he remains the president of the ruling party and indeed the country.
His detractors are very well within their rights to loathe him, but they ought to at least show respect – if not for the man, then at least for the office he occupies.
Most South Africans, I believe, regard this painting as claptrap, the result of a morally base lack of judgement.
Hence the painting is not only utterly reprehensible to Zuma, his family and the ANC, but is found to be a truly nauseating piece of work by a significant number of South Africans in the villages, urban and peri-urban areas, as well as in the suburbs.
This is indeed what the founding fathers and mothers of the new South Africa must have dreaded as they went about their business during the negotiated settlement of the early 1990s, which ushered in a time of renewed hope for our troubled land.
Murray’s work also serves to confirm long-held suspicion by sceptics in the black community that his artistic standpoint is a microcosm of how the bulk of white South Africans view Zuma and his fellow travellers – with contempt.
But the truth is, the ensuing public discourse, which is polarising in so many ways, is limited to our societal expectations, values and morals.
And in South Africa, as is the norm universally, morality is not law.
Instead, it is only a set of unwritten rules to which we are expected to adhere.
Our desire as fellow citizens, black and white, is therefore to exhibit a greater acknowledgement of our differences of being, which has been summed up in our famous rallying cry of “united in diversity”.
The legality of Murray’s thought-provoking work is set to be determined by a full bench of the high court in Johannesburg.
We should all welcome this development, irrespective of our personal or political views.
And the reason is simple: a court of law will rule on the parameters and extent of our freedom of expression. Surely no freedom is absolute? But then, that’s only my view. Inconsequential.
Our courts will once and for all help lay to rest our conflicting interpretations of the constitution.
Whichever way the three judges rule, their findings will have far-reaching repercussions for the way South Africans, and particularly the more enlightened, carry themselves as they go about their professional work, or in any way whatsoever.
On the political front, I suspect that the ANC stands to lose the most at the end of the unfolding schism.
“The ANC leads”, and has been doing so since 1994, when we held our first democratic elections.
As a black man from both the village and the township, I can understand the anger of the ANC, and it is not difficult to sympathise with the party and Zuma’s family in their grief.
However, the ANC needs to be careful, very careful, that it is not seen to be threatening violence against its weaker opponents.
The hastily organised protest outside the court on Tuesday, the defacing of Murray’s painting as it hung on the walls of the Goodman Gallery in Rosebank, and cries of racism over the offending art could turn nastily against the ANC in the mid- to long-term period.
The bewildered eyes of the international community are on us as a country, and the ANC’s splendid reputation as a champion of democracy stands in the dock of the international court of public opinion at this juncture.
That the Goodman Gallery has had to shut down in the wake of threats of violence and intimidation does not bode well for the image of the ANC in the eyes of the international community.
Nor do the death threats from, believe it or not, a church denomination known as Shembe.
All these negative developments have the potential to be construed as the hallmarks of the emergence of a nanny state, in Mandela’s lifetime nogal.
At a different level, the row is a clear indication that Mandela’s mission is far from being accomplished.
Evidence in support of this view abounds.
We see examples of racial division whenever we celebrate key public holidays such as Youth Day, Women’s Day and Freedom Day, among others.
Whereas most black people always attend the celebrations of these days, their white counterparts don’t.
This is a reality that cannot be swept under the carpet for ever. We cannot pretend that it does not exist so that we don’t disrupt our reconciliation agenda.
The glaring absence of a common vision around which all men, women and children are rallied is worrisome.
We need the glue that binds us together.
The absence of such a glue causes too many people to focus their attention on too many different things, some good and others not.
If the ANC indeed leads, it will have to provide South Africans from all walks of life with that common vision behind which the citizenry can rally, roll up their sleeves and work very hard in pursuit of a common future.
The task may be arduous, but it is certainly not insurmountable.
The furore surrounding Murray’s artwork is an unwelcome distraction, but even more so the reaction to it.
* Makoe is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Royal News Services.