The Spear and the Marikana massacre:
Mirroring the decline of South African democracy
South African politicians – and the country’s brand promoters – often boast of the country’s Constitution as being one of the, if not the, most progressive constitutions in the world. For example, the website, www.mediaclubsouthafrica.com states “South Africa’s Constitution, admired and respected around the world for its pioneering approach to human rights, is the symbol of a remarkable negotiated transition – one that turned a country ravaged by apartheid and oppression into one that celebrates freedom and democracy”.
Chapter 1 of the Constitution states that South Africa is founded on “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms”.
The Bill of Rights in Chapter 2 of the Constitution enshrines the right to life, to equality, human dignity, freedom of expression, freedom of association and the freedom to demonstrate. South Africa has the distinction of being the first country in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, thereby, indeed earning the Constitution its “most progressive” credentials.
However, while the Constitution holds up a vision of what South Africans may aspire to, the everyday reality is significantly different. Two items that made world headlines this year illustrate this: The Spear painting by artist Brett Murray and the massacre by police of 34 striking miners at the Marikana platinum mine. This article will attempt to join the dots between these two items, arguing that they reflect the decline of South Africa’s democracy.
In the South African art world, Brett Murray is well-known for his ironic and sometimes hard-hitting social commentary through his sculptures, paintings, public art and even his functional, arty lights. This is but a continuation of his practice as an artist during the anti-apartheid struggle when he produced art that provoked the apartheid regime, and participated in art exhibitions, cultural events and poster-making that reflected his antipathy towards a government that sought to promote and protect the interests of a white minority while conversely suppressing – often violently – the aspirations and interests of the black majority.
In 2010, sixteen years after Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the country’s first President and in the same year as South Africa showcased itself to the world through the FIFA Soccer World Cup – a vanity project if ever there was one – Murray staged his first Hail to the Thief exhibition, an angry rebuke of the ANC’s selling out of its liberation ideals.
One of the works featured (dead) heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle associating them with contemporary, large-scale corruption such as “Oliver ‘On-the-Take’ Tambo”; “Steve ‘Kick-back-King’ Biko” and “Joe ‘Mr Ten Percent’ Slovo”. Murray also had the ANC logo with a “For Sale” sign plastered over it, with another saying “Sold”. His plaque “President and Sons Ltd” alluded to the manner in which many of President Zuma’s family members had become overnight millionaires, for being little other than his family.
The criticism embedded in these works reflected the anger of Zwelinzima Vavi, the General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and a one-time staunch Zuma ally, who stated that South Africa was “heading for a predator state where a powerful, corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyenas are increasingly using the state to get rich”, further adding that just like the hyena and her daughters eat first, so the family of the chief of a predator state eats first. (Vavi could also have been speaking of Angola where the daughter of the President – who has been in power for more than 30 years – is not only the most wealthy woman in Angola, but also one of the most wealthy in Africa).
This exhibition with its showings in both the Cape Town and Johannesburg Goodman Gallery venues, attracted little interest from the political elite and it is unlikely that these didactically provocative works made Murray rich.
In 2012, Murray staged Hail to the Thief II at the Goodman Gallery with a number of the works from the 2010 exhibition included in this one, along with new works such as the painting, The Spear, featuring President Zuma in a Lenin-like pose and with exposed genitals. As with the 2010 exhibition, there was little outrage till the City Press, a weekly Sunday newspaper, featured a review of the exhibition along with photographs of some of the works such as The Spear. It was at this point that ANC leaders, members of the political elite and the ANC’s allies went on the offensive, demanding that City Press removes the image from its website, marching on the Goodman Gallery to pressurise it into removing the offending art work, taking the gallery to court to achieve the same end, and unleashing a torrent of abuse at the artist.
Murray was repeatedly accused of being a racist, of undermining the dignity of the President, of disrespecting African culture which allegedly forbade the exposure of a man’s genitals and his credentials as an anti-apartheid struggle artist were repudiated. One church leader called for him to be stoned; the work was defaced by two men who painted over it and the Film and Publications Board saw fit to impose an age restriction of 16 on the viewing of the painting.
Freedom of creative expression – guaranteed in the Constitution – was permitted, it would seem, in the confines of a commercial gallery; once art that offended the political sensibilities of the ruling elite was placed in the public domain, it appeared that the right of the President to dignity – often the mantra of banana republics to prevent criticism of the ruling president – was deemed more important than the rights of an artist to legitimate social commentary.
The Marikana massacre
Barely three months after the outrage directed at Murray, 34 striking miners at a platinum mine in the North West Province and owned by British company, Lonmin, were brutally gunned down by South African police. This event is regarded as the worst case of state brutality against the people of South Africa since the ANC took power in 1994, rivalling the massacre of Sharpeville in 1960 when 69 people were killed by police as they protested against the pass book that black people were required to carry. The “New South Africa” has a public holiday – Human Rights Day on 21 March – commemorating the Sharpeville massacre and as a reminder that such events should never happen again in a democratic state.
Two further ironies are that the former Secretary General of the National Union of Mineworkers – Cyril Ramaphosa – serves on the Lonmin Board of Directors and he was a principal architect of the celebrated South African Constitution that enshrines the full gamut of human rights, including the most fundamental right: the right to life!
At the Commission of Inquiry into the massacre, emails between Ramaphosa and his director colleagues at Lonmin, reveal that he engaged the minister responsible for the mining sector as well as the Secretary of General of the ANC (also a former secretary general of the National Union of Mineworkers) to impress upon them the need for strong action against the miners whom he characterises as “criminals”. It might have been a coincidence, but within 24 hours of this email, the police massacred the miners.
Bizarrely, police arrested more than 250 miners after gunning down their colleagues and then the National Prosecuting Authority charged these miners with the murder of their comrades. The Marikana slaughter and the response of state institutions indicated just how little the powerful elite cared for the rights, dignity and interests of the poor.
The Spear and the Marikana massacre: Connecting the dots
Jeremy Gordin, a journalist and biographer of President Zuma, in an article on 21 August 2012 and after the Marikana massacre, wrote:
I was waiting for a cry – or even merely a squeak – of anguish from Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of COSATU and former organiser of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Or maybe from Gwede Mantashe, Secretary General of the ANC, who was the Secretary General of NUM…until 2006…Or how about Blade Nzimande, General Secretary of the SA Communist Party? ….
I thought I would definitely hear from Mantashe, Nzimande and Vavi and Tony Yengeni (ANC head of political education) and Jackson Mthembu (ANC spokesperson). I was particularly hoping to hear from these five men because they, if I’m not mistaken, were the brave men, the valiant men, the fearless and outspoken men, who led the charge against the Goodman Gallery and City Press in the matter of President Zuma’s exposed peanut.
Yet, after 34 miners were gunned down….there was not even a peep from these featherless bipeds. Not a sound. Well, I guess there’s nothing to say when you weigh up the President’s peanut against 44 dead people – 34 of them gunned down in the dust by an inept, over-armed and leaderless police force.
Gordin’s satirical rebuke of the leadership of the trade union movement, of the South African Communist Party and of the ANC is apt: the ruling political alliance expressed greater anger and condemnation at the artist who dared to use metaphor to decry the decline of the liberation movement’s ideals, than when ordinary workers who would have expected this leadership to create a better life for them, were massacred by the police.
There has been much criticism recently of the extraordinarily high expenditure by the State on President Zuma’s private residence in rural KwaZulu Natal, with the responsible minister justifying it on the basis of this being a “national security site” and that details of such expenditure were – accordingly – secret (ironically, in terms of a piece of apartheid-era legislation!)
In the light of the Marikana massacre, the apparent abuse of state resources in upgrading the President’s personal home to the tune of more than R200 million (in excess of 15 million EUR) and the infighting within the ANC over positions of power, with many – even within the party – characterising this battle as factional strife with the aim of securing the levers of state power and access to the public purse, the political leadership has faced a torrent of criticism from within its own ranks as well as from one-time allies and supporters – the overwhelming majority of whom are black; criticism which is certainly no less – and in some cases, considerably more trenchant – than that expressed by Murray in his exhibition.
Recently, President Zuma dropped his civil court case against the country’s leading editorial cartoonist – Zapiro – who had depicted him as a rapist of Lady Justice after corruption charges against the President had been dropped. The fact, though, that such a case had been instituted in the first place, reflects the tenuous commitment to freedom of creative expression by political leaders who have pledged to uphold the Constitution that guarantees this right.
Murray’s social commentary and his critique of the political elite’s selling out of the liberation ideals that made so many people support the African National Congress has been proven correct by the massacre of miners and by President Zuma’s rapacious assault on the public purse to improve his homestead while millions of South Africans continue to live in squalor.
While they may be unable to use apartheid-style censorship laws to suppress criticism, the political elite has shown a great appetite for threats of court action, protest marches, verbal abuse and insults, political marginalisation, racist accusations, etc to intimidate critics from exposing or commenting on the rot that is in the state of South Africa.
Democracy – with freedom of expression a fundamental premise – is under threat from those who would rather accumulate their ill-gotten gain without embarrassing scrutiny. Murray and others like him need to be supported and encouraged lest democracy be made and entrenched in the self-serving image of the metaphorical rapists of the dreams of millions of South Africans.