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OUR country is caught in a firestorm in which white and black men are debating the relative dignity or disparagement of portraying one very powerful man’s genitalia, with much fire and passion.
This is all taking place while many of us work with civil society organisations dealing with gender-based violence where we have to work out how best to assist and support women and minors who are victims of sexual offences routinely; when poor black women confronted with incest in families are faced with choices about laying charges against a perpetrator but losing a breadwinner; or confronting perpetrators in their everyday lives because they do not want to earn the ire of communities or families if they lay charges.
The routine everyday vulnerability of these women and girls in particular to sexual offences is the horrendous backdrop to the debate raging about Brett Murray’s artwork The Spear and the president’s affronted dignity. I agree that the painting is vulgar – God knows SA women have had enough of penises thrust in our faces and other orifices, forcibly and against our will.
Let Brett Murray have his freedom of expression to vulgarity – we have a choice as to whether we want to see this work that deals with a theme that is so passé.
That we are living in vulgar times is not new. These times are characterised by selfish, powerful men’s egos that are so fragile they parade as victims even as they cynically indulge in excesses, while vulnerable citizens fall further into an economic and social morass.
Vulnerable men and women are then mobilised through political patronage, in defence of powerful men’s dignity, (in the case of Julius Malema, as well as the president during a rape trial) in the hope that their participation will have some material payoff later down the line.
The president’s response and that of his mainly male supporters to Murray’s work raises more pertinent questions about the energy that is now expended defending Mr Zuma’s dignity.
If the president’s leadership in other more urgent matters was more forthright, if his administration was more determined in confronting issues of service delivery, especially to the poor who are mainly black, launching an effective war against corruption, against sexual offences and the breakdown of social cohesion due to the impact of poverty, would we still be seeing such questions arise about his ability to lead, and of leadership in these vulgar times?
Jackson Mthembu’s attempts to compare the president with Sarah Baartman are spurious and an affront to the historical attempts to restore her dignity.
Mr Zuma cannot be compared to Sarah Baartman – she lived in a context of structural, legislated racism with no resources while the president lives in a context where racism, though still present in the everyday, is not formally legislated any longer and the economic obstacles that impact on the material aspirations of the black elite, of which Mr Zuma is a member, have shifted.
The president has more economic, political and cultural resources than most of SA’s citizens.
He is the president of the one of the most powerful African countries. He earns much more and owns so much more than most ordinary people.
He is the head of the most powerful political party as well, and masses of people are mobilised to defend his affronted dignity at a moment’s notice, as we have witnessed in the rape trial and now in marches on the Goodman gallery and the court.
Sarah Baartman could not hope to mobilise such resources to defend her dignity.
As far as we know, she did not even have children to mobilise in her defence. Poor people, especially women and children, who are mainly black, cannot mobilise these resources to defend their dignity that is assaulted on a daily basis through the sheer lack of basic resources, fundamental disrespect from men and such levels of impoverishment that they have to sometimes use sex as currency to meet basic needs such as food, electricity and shelter – needs that the president takes for granted, thanks to taxes paid by ordinary citizens.
I appeal to the president to use his powerful position to provide the necessary vision and leadership to tackle the major challenges facing our country.
These are effective service delivery, a hard line on corruption, commitment to transparency and accountability, instilling political will in the education system to produce a more skilled, educated population, the possibility of a job for the many unemployed young people, and renewed respect for women, the disabled, the elderly and children.
n Salo is with the Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Pretoria.