"The Spear" is a painting. It is, or was, a brutal mockery of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, who is portrayed posed in an iconic echo of a portrait of Lenin, looking over his shoulder towards the future -- but with his genitals exposed. It's a startling image. And after it came to public attention as part of an exhibit in May 2012 it became the cause of tremendous controversy in South Africa, with one court case aimed at taking it off the gallery walls as an unlawful breach of Zuma's privacy and dignity; another proceeding before the "Film and Publication Board" ultimately resulting in the South African equivalent of an "R" rating -- meaning people under 16 can't be permitted to see it; mass demonstrations that ultimately led the gallery to pull the painting off its walls and website; along the way, two simultaneous defacements of the painting that covered Zuma's face and genitals with obscuring paint; and now, the artist who painted the piece in hiding after threats to his life. (For a chronicle of much of this, see Phillip de Wet, "How Zuma's bid to halt 'The Spear' case was derailed," Mail and Guardian, May 31, 2012. And for the image itself, along with thoughtful discussion by South African constitutional law scholar Pierre de Vos, see "On the President, his penis, and bizarre attempts to censor a work of art," on de Vos' blog Constitutionally Speaking.)
It's very easy to understand why Jacob Zuma and his supporters would have been deeply offended by this painting. The painting can be seen as a ferocious insult, saying (all the more emphatically since without words) that Zuma's sexual appetite has debased his claim to lead South Africa's progress towards a just society. The show of which it was a part was a sustained and equally hostile appraisal of the ANC's governance of South Africa. (I won't explore here, but certainly want to acknowledge, that the same things that make the painting genuinely upsetting for some may have made it a convenient pretext for political maneuver by others.)
But it is not easy to see a basis on which this painting could be suppressed without violating the freedom of speech. Harshly criticizing the ANC is core political speech; if you can't harshly criticize the government you're not living in a democracy. Harshly criticizing the President of the country must be permissible for the same reason. Deliberately telling damaging lies about the President isn't an essential part of free speech -- but the painting's statements were not points of fact but matters of opinion. And it is a fact that Zuma's life invites the charge that he is not a leader but a libertine; as is well known, he stood trial -- and was acquitted -- on a charge of rape that resulted from his having admittedly had sex (while married) with a young woman who was the daughter of a family friend. He has also admitted recently fathering a child out of wedlock. Moreover, it is no exaggeration to say that sexual mores in South Africa are in a crisis, and that male sexual aggression is a major public policy issue; half of South African women can expect to be raped sometime in their lives, according to a recent article by Charlayne Hunter-Gault. To link sex and politics together must be legitimate political expression.
And yet: there is a history to these things. The artist, a longtime opponent of apartheid, is nevertheless white. Zuma is black. In the old days, which aren't so long ago, I understand that whites forced blacks to strip to be examined as part of the elaborate system of apartheid control over black lives. Whites looked down on blacks then, and no doubt part of their prejudice was an array of fantasies about black lust -- and these attitudes probably aren't gone now. (Anne McClintock of the University of Wisconsin describes some of these overtones in "The best way to deal with 'The Spear,'" Mail and Guardian, May 31, 2012.) Indeed, one reason Jacob Zuma might be seen as a libertine, or at least one reason that blacks might think whites took this view, is that he is a polygamist and currently has four wives -- but South African customary law permits polygamy, and so to sneer at Zuma's polygamy is in a sense to sneer at African culture.
And even if we put apartheid altogether to one side, it's possible to imagine other pieces of art like this, and to wonder whether the public figures subjected to them -- however public their lives are, and however ill-chosen some of their actions along the way might have been -- might reasonably feel that these assaults go too far. Some readers may doubt this; perhaps the point is clearest if you imagine similar paintings of female politicians. Add worldwide distribution of the images via the web (as in Zuma's case, and as perpetuated in this case by my link above), and perhaps the point will seem even more forceful.
Could free speech continue without images like this? I think the answer must be yes. A state that outlawed every image portraying someone's genitals without the subject's consent, for example, could still have strong and free political debate, and a rich and diverse and even subversive cultural life.
But could "images like this" be banned without impairing free speech in more sweeping ways? That I doubt. The logic of banning these images would extend to others, potentially many others. Ultimately we would wind up with the idea that what affronts people profoundly is potentially suppressible -- and at that point we don't have freedom of speech.
So I wind up believing that this painting was, indeed, protected free speech. Would it be better, though, if the artist had never chosen to speak in this particular way in the first place? I'm not sure. The events that followed the hanging of the painting do not strike me as a victory for liberty of expression in South Africa, but they were illuminating. To know what is upsetting is important, both to future speakers and artists who may choose to shape their expression to respect others' understandable sensitivities better, and for people as a whole, to know what their fellow citizens actually believe. But like Barack Obama, I would like to see a politics that was kinder and less virulent, and I hope for the same for South Africans.