(File photo) The editor-in Chief of City Press, Ferial Haffajee. Photo: Moeletsi Mabe

Cape Town - City Press editor Ferial Haffajee would not remove Brett Murray's controversial painting “The Spear” from her newspaper's website if given the chance now, she said on Wednesday.

“I would not take down that image today, knowing what I do now,” she said at the TB Davie memorial lecture at the University of Cape Town.

“That power of love, of standing down, of reconciling to a great good has withered in my eyes and it's been made to whither by a failed and slaving leech, by men and women who are shadows of the people who led us into this democratic era.”

Haffajee said the upshot was that she was a changed person.

“I'm less a child of (former president Nelson) Mandela than I used to be and more a freedom of expression fundamentalist.”

She said the debacle had allowed her, for the first time, to feel the fear of freedom slipping away and to get a glimpse into what the “histrionics” were raving about when they painted pictures of doom and gloom.

Although she recognised that fundamentalism was not really helpful, she had come to understand that the “lifeblood” of democratic freedom was easily and quickly undermined.

“Independently, I feel my freedom being eviscerated... Achieving freedom took many, many decades and took thousands of lives but it takes very, very little to kill it.”

Haffajee announced at the end of May that she would take down an image of the painting. The decision followed more than a week of controversy over the painting, which depicted President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed.

Murray reworked a Russian propaganda poster of Marxist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin for his exhibition “Hail to the Thief II” at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.

When Haffajee initially refused to remove the image, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe called for a boycott of City Press.

Two people were arrested for defacing the painting and a third for spray-painting part of the word “respect” on the gallery's outside wall.

A senior counsel broke down in court during a challenge by the African National Congress, Zuma and Zuma's children, to have the painting and web images of it banned.

Haffajee said: “We almost became the focal point of a presidential campaign for re-election.

“I have no doubt that the fight about this was an easy comeuppance for a media with which the governing party often had 1/8clashed 3/8, because it disliked the mirror we hold up to society.”

The editor said despite the drama, she was confident that South Africa had nothing to worry about in terms of freedom.

She said she had the greatest confidence in the “awakening” of civil society and its ability to fight for worthy causes and win.

The Social Justice Coalition, the Right2Know campaign, Section27 and Equal Education were prime examples. - Sapa