It’s great that Kenny Kunene attempted to break social media with his painting of Helen Zille attempting the sort of yoga move that once got someone’s granny banned from that Virgin Active in Bryanston.
It opened up a whole new angle on the debate about the place of artistic satire in South Africa – and it was great for a laugh.
It’s obvious, however, that Kenny expected Helen, Mmusi Maimane and James Selfe to be foaming at the mouth, but they simply didn’t provide him and everyone rubbing their hands together in glee – like schoolboys peering at that naughty picture Timmy painted at the back of the class of the teacher with her boobs out – with that pleasure.
Helen laughed it off and Mmusi pointed out that he had better things to do (like trying to win an election). And in a heartbeat, the much-hoped-for scandal was snuffed out and everyone got on with their lives – aside from the echoing sniggers on social media.
The DA’s was the kind of reaction you’d expect from a mature, liberal democracy. Satirical drawings of monarchs and prime ministers have been crass and brutal in Europe for centuries, and there has been a long, often nauseating and proud Western tradition, of satirists showing scant respect for anyone in a position of authority, and the West’s leaders have grown to accept this as just another part of the job.
If you’re in power, you should know that people, society in general, and the media particularly, are going to lampoon you – because making fun of people with power is:
a) Much funnier than making fun of people with no power (and far braver, therefore more admirable). One must never punch down, always up;
b) A way of keeping the powerful humble, because especially in liberal democracies, the powerful need to be reminded as often as possible that they are there by the grace of popular opinion alone; and
c) It’s simple human nature.
This, in tribute to the slain satirists at Charlie Hebdo, sums it up better than I could ever do:
At first I thought the DA had messed up a golden opportunity to demonstrate to the ANC just how daft all of its marches and injunctions not to “buy City Press, don’t buy!” actually were in 2012. When Maimane’s spokesperson said Kunene’s painting needed to be tossed into the dustbin, I thought: “Oh, so you DA chaps are really no better than the Zuma crowd.”
But then the next day, their PR gurus must have slapped them awake, because the DA went big with the message that Iven Amali’s painting was “freedom of expression” and the DA would always defend the rights of artists.
So, yes, points for the DA (although a little belatedly) for sure.
One still has to wonder about the backstory of this painting though. We’re meant to believe that a 38-year-old artist decided to travel all the way from his impoverished home country, Malawi, to South Africa, only to decide that the thing about South Africa that bothers him most is the DA and its “black slave” of a leader, Maimane.
As far as I know, no one in the DA has ever said anything against either Malawi or Malawians (for the record, Zuma did once publicly mock Malawi’s primitive road infrastructure, but Amali is obviously forgiving of such things).
It might be that Amali was given the idea to create the painting, or it was simply commissioned from him. But the story of how it was then supposedly offered to the Goodman Gallery smacks of contrivance – because what a convenient coincidence it was that the Goodman just so happened to have been the same gallery that exhibited Brett Murray’s own schoolboyish painting of Jacob Zuma with his own junk not properly packed away in its trunk.
Apparently other galleries were also approached. Really? Which ones? It makes for a good news article, but it all seems so rather enormously pre-manufactured – and just days before an election too…
Aside from the DA making full use of the unexpected opportunity to demonstrate its “magnanimity” in the face of an insult in oil (or pastel, perhaps?), why did the ANC react so violently to Murray’s The Spear in 2012? Why was it also so deeply offended by Ayanda Mabulu’s paintings that the party’s spokesperson called them an abuse of freedom of expression?
The answer comes down to an old cliché: the Zuma paintings only hurt because they were so true. The unhappy reality for the ANC is that its leader actually does appear to be a slave to the demands of his Little Zuma, and the rest of the time he can often be found on his knees kissing Gupta buttock.
The fact that two artists successfully noticed this is what hurts, not the “pornography” of their work.
Making fun of Maimane being black in a historically white party isn’t clever; it’s obvious. So obvious, in fact, that even Jacob Zuma noticed it and insists on continuing to tell us all about it. Yes, Jacob, we know, Mmusi is black and Helen is white. We saw.
There are many things that are true about the DA that deserve to be lampooned and, if successfully performed, would seriously hurt the opposition party:
- The fact that there are so many men at the top;
- That their greatest historical hero and forebear, Helen Suzman, while a big opponent of the National Party and the apartheid system, was never actually in favour of full enfranchisement of “the blacks” (she wanted only those with the right education or some other form of qualification to be granted suffrage, at least at first);
- They rely on the so-called coloured vote so much but don’t really prioritise the issues of that group. In fact, they often just exploit it;
- That so many of their party members are said to be high on cocaine for half their lives;
- That they are painfully smug;
- Worst, worst of all, that they are trying to pull off some bizarre form of political alchemy by rebranding Nelson Mandela a DA member. I get that if they manage to do that in the minds of the masses, they will probably reach a critical tipping point and can finally enter the era of being a party for the unwashed millions, but it’s extremely cynical. By now, I think everyone in the DA has probably completely convinced themselves in an act of mass delusion that “yes, Tata would have voted for us today!”, but such collective madness, however fervently believed, is still genuinely laughable.; and
- Let’s not forget the average dancing skills of a white politician. Eminently mockable.
One could go on, but the point is that no political party is above reproach and being made fun of. Anything and anyone can be torn apart by satire.
Perhaps if Iven Amali had painted something more along those lines it wouldn’t have been quite so easy for Auntie Helen to laugh it off, because, quite frankly, her vagina, unlike (many of us suspect) JZ’s penis, has never imperilled the wellbeing of our nation.