Freedom of Speech & Expression: are there limits?
By Crystal Svanikier
This week, South Africa has been in the throes of a national debate, sparked by a painting by the South African artist Brett Murray, who painted a picture of the South African president Jacob Zuma iconically standing with his genitals exposed. Yes, his genitals exposed. The painting, which until yesterday was part of an exhibition at a Johannesburg gallery, is controversially titled, ‘The Spear’ and has reignited the debate around the freedom of expression and the role art plays in the testing of that freedom.
Are we really free to say whatever we want?
The simple answer to that is ‘no’. There are indeed limits to what we can say, especially when the thing we say is about someone else. Defamation is definitely not okay. Lying or twisting the truth is not okay either. However, I do wonder whether this is the case in this particular instance.
ANC supporters and the children of President Zuma say that the painting constitutes hate speech and infringes on their constitutional rights as enshrined in the South African constitution, which prohibits the abuse and degradation of children. This is an interesting perspective, especially since President Zuma’s children are indeed exposed to potential abuse and ridicule as a result of this controversy. However, once deconstructed, this argument becomes applicable to a number of other instances – circumstance involving children of individuals involved in any scandal.
President Zuma responded to the incident himself by stating that the painting might be regarded as ‘legitimate social commentary’ due to his admitting to having many extramarital affairs and his handling of publicised sex cases (research: Richard Mdluli). His point is that, even though other world leaders have been painted in the nude, Murray’s painting ignores the South African context. South Africa has a history of the marginalization and degradation of black people and it is within this particular context President Zuma the painting is distasteful.
So, is this an abuse of artistic expression?
I don’t know… Granted, South Africa the historical context that would make this piece of art outrage so many (perhaps, most?) black South Africans. Granted, no one within President Zuma’s family or political party (the ANC) would be particularly happy about this. But I’m not entirely sure this is an abuse of artistic expression… I’m still trying to make up my mind…
What are your thoughts?