South Africa: The Spear, Freedom of Speech and Morality

A painting by South African artist Brett Murray depicting South African president's genitals has ignited debate about morality and freedom of speech in the country. The painting tilted “The Spear” is part of Hail to the Thief II exhibition currently being shown at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.

The South African African National Congress (ANC) wants the High Court to stop the gallery and the artist from displaying the painting on any online or offline platform.

Discussing the painting in light of the 10 principles of free speech, Evidence and Reason says:

Zuma is challenging the limits of free expression on the grounds of morality. I don’t think he has the stronger position, because I think the picture was a political observation rather than an attack on his person.

Offending someone is not a crime, says Simon Gerber:

Offending someone is not a crime, rather it is a valuable tool to kickstart discussion. It should be embraced, especially in a transitional democracy such as ours.

A visitor to the Goodman Gallery posing in front of The Spear. Photo source:

He has one simple advice to the ANC:

ANC, we’ve said it before, and we’re saying it again. Drop this. You’re making yourselves look foolish. You’ve taken a story that would have died in a 24 hour news cycle and made it into something that is dragging on much longer than it needs to. It is not racist. It is not a direct attack on the president, it is commentary on the state of the country.

South African consitutional law expert Pierre De Vos explains why the ANC might lose their case:

The ANC may not be aware of the fact that section 16(1)(c) of the Constitution states that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes ”freedom of artistic creativity”. It is true that no right is unlimited but even where the right to free expression is limited an exception is usually made for artistic expression. Our law often distinguishes between real depictions of individuals and art works and hardly ever allows for the censoring of the latter. For example, section 12 of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (which prohibits hate speech) explicity makes an exception for a “bona fide engagement in artistic creativity”. Section 3 of the Film and Publications Act contains a similar exception.

The fact that the ANC seems incapable of distinguishing between a work of art and real life will probably ruin their legal case they are planning to launch.

The following discussion ensued on Pierre's blog around issues of decency, respect for elders and African culture:

Ma-K does not find the painting funny:

I must say, I’m truly appalled by how you all seem to find this funny. Would you hold the same sentiments if this was a painting of Nelson Mandela? I might not be one of J Z’s biggest fans, but I was taught to respect my elders…This is a depiction of someone’s father, grandfather, uncle,for God’s Sake! Have you no shame? Would you still laugh it off and call it art if this was a portrait of you or someone close to you? I would also be offended and angered by this so called art work if it portrayed my father or even myself. So, I ask you again, would you feel the same way you do now, would you write what you wrote if this was a painting of Nelson Mandela?

nkhosi believes that there is something wrong with “a young white male depicting an elderly African leader in a very comprised posture”:

Smart artist understand the context of their work and they treat context very carefully. They then present that context in a manner that does not seek ridicule. Take Goya’s “El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid” for instance. No one can doubt the potency of the message in that painting. BUT there is no vulgar or brutality involved.

Stupid, narrow-minded artist on the other hand, irresponsibly, stoke fires in a society that is already bedeviled by mistrust. The fact is that we have a so-called artist who is a young white male depicting an elderly African leader in a very comprised posture. It is clear that some among us, will never stop looking at older black males as merely garden boys who exist for their pleasure. I think Athol Fugard addressed this in “Master Harold…and the Boys”.

This so-called artist and many contributors here is failing to rid himself of this indoctrinated racism. That is why they can’t see the callousness of this so-called ‘work of art’.

Ricky responds to Ma-K's argument saying that there is nothing pornographic about the painting:

Ma-K, if you look at some of the most famous works of art from the Greek sculptures a few thousand years ago through the renaissance (agreed from Western culture, I am not very familiar with art from other parts of the world), they show naked persons, even great heros like Hercules. So I do not think there is anything disgraceful about that (of course, a pornographic picture featuring the President might be viewed differently – but the picture in question is not, in my view, pornographic).

Ma-K disagrees with Ricky's observations:

We are not Greek or in anyway European, we don’t appreciate the same kind of art. As Africans, such Art is disrespectful to us. So a white man’s (not being racist,Greeks are white) art is a black man’s(Zuma is black) insult.

However, Ricky considers fear of the naked body to be un-African:

Ma-K, I find this fear of the naked body somewhat strange. At the traditional dances for the Swazi king, the women are hardly dressed, the bushman / San people wear only a little loin cloth, in many African cultures it is common to make statues of wood depicting naked men, even showing the private parts. So, it is not a uniquely European thing.

“But certainly the image was not intended as an artistic celebration of the naked human body,” writes ozoneblue:

But certainly the image was not intended as an artistic celebration of the naked human body. It was designed to denigrate the person of Jacob Zuma against the back ground of his sexuality and adherence to traditional Zulu value system as seen through the lens of Eurocentric cultural chauvinism. Then there is also the association of the image with socialism that carries a strong political message. The combination of the two themes i.e. African cultural backwardness and the populist tendency towards socialist rhetoric in Africa is not much different to the attitude of the Apartheid regime towards Africans.

Opinions about the moral, legal and cultural dimensions of the painting are deeply divided on Twitter:

@ShellsPemBroke: Why is everyone freaking out about the Zuma painting so much? I think the artist was more than generous with size.

@steve_hofmeyr: Zuma can kill the Spear-debate by simply purchasing the painting.

@KevinMcCallum: The Zuma painting saga has shown up the belief politicians “deserve” respect. Zuma works for me, not me for him. He's an elected official.

@lwangamwilu: @Bradleychingobe as somebody already argued, Zuma has done more harm to his own image than any painting ever can.

@Vhadiks: Lol..I wonder RT @MashuduBusta: So ANC says Zuma painting is racist, what if it was painted by a black man? would it still be racist?

@MoffatMok: There's art and there's down right cruelty….how is showing Mr Jacob Zuma's jewels in a painting a form of art…paint ur own father rather

@GiftSabby: After Seeing Brett Murruy Painting Of Zuma, I Think People Should See Zuma As A Human Being, A Father And A Person Who Also Get Hurts..

The ANC's legal challenge to have the painting removed from the gallery will be broadcast live when the High Court in Johannesburg hears the case on Thursday.


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