It defies comprehension. This is a man televised prancing around in loinskin and incongruous white takkies, his man-breasts roiling and thunderous thighs wobbling, to celebrate the acquisition of yet another wife.
This is a man with a harem but who is caught diddling with women a third of his age. At least two were the daughters of close friends. At least one became pregnant and another cried rape.
This is a man charged with corruption but who so determinedly suborned the political process to his judicial advantage that many South Africans glumly accept that their president – for it is he, Jacob Zuma, of whom I write – is a scoundrel.
This guy, while heading the government’s moral rearmament programme and anti-HIV campaign, recommended a brisk shower as a reliable antidote to infection. Zuma is the nation’s laughing stock, its presidential light relief, even among many African National Congress supporters.
Yet Zuma claims that he has been defamed by a satirical painting, just as he previously claimed – backed by intimidatory and as yet unresolved legal action – that for a cartoonist to mock him is to deprive him of his fundamental right to human dignity.
The president says he is ‘shocked and offended’ to be portrayed as ‘a philanderer, a womaniser’. He felt ‘violated’, poor diddums.
Brett Murray’s artwork The Spear, showed Zuma in pompous Leninesque pose but with genitals exposed. It was part of a series of biting depictions that use stock socialist imagery to mock a party that Murray believes sold out its revolutionary heritage to corruption and extravagant living.
The Spear has since been blunted, vandalised by some Zuma supporters and withdrawn from view. This followed threats by the Young Communists to rip down the painting and a call by the head of the Shembe church, which has between four to six million members, for the stoning to death of Murray.
The usual motley band of fronts, alliances and political supplicants that rally around the ANC expressed their shock and anger at the indecency of it all, especially directing their fury at the racist Eurocentric artist and, indeed, all whiteys who didn’t appreciate the freedoms kindly donated by the ANC.
No one within the governing alliance called for calm or objected to the death threats. It took Cape artist Ayanda Mabula to inject some good sense. The ANC reaction was ‘backward and illiterate’ and the time had come ‘for artists to express how we feel about what is going on in our society’.
Mabula has personal experience of irrational outrage. In 2010 retailer Truworths removed his paintings from an exhibition for fear of offending the public.
The work included depictions of rightwing leader Eugene Terre Blanche as a pig. Ironically, considering the present furore, one painting was of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu along with Zuma, both with their genitals exposed.
So why was the ANC reaction so muted then, so angry now? Part of it is that Mabula is black and Murray is white. The race divide remains real and raw: while you can mock the heroes of your own ethnic group, to mock other ethnicities is to stir fury.
Perhaps it is always thus. A few years back The Sun newspaper described as ‘vile’ and ‘obviously the work of a lunatic’ Spanish artist Paolo Schmidlin’s Porno Queen, an ultra-realistic sculpture of Britain’s aged monarch, her sagging breasts being groped by a pair of anonymous hands.
Another statue of Elizabeth and hubby Philip naked on a bench, he knees apart and hand suggestively poised and she with hands primly sheltering her genitals, also caused an uproar. It had to be removed from outside Australia’s parliament when it was vandalised by enraged royalists.
But maybe our thin-skinned, fat-headed president can learn something from Lizzy. Her majesty did not deign to notice or comment on either storm in a tea-cup. And it had all blown over by the end of the week.