Last week the whole of the country had a lot to say about the controversial #ZuptaStateCapture painting by Ayanda Mabulu.
A robust dialogue about the artworks and the bigger question of freedom of expression versus human dignity was held at Constitution Hill about some of the social issues raised by the paintings and the reactions to them. The panellists included Prof Pitika Ntuli, a renowned sculptor in his own right, artist Ndabuko Ntuli and Dr Lindiwe D Makhunga, a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Curator Asanda Madosi shared his view that the “Zupta” painting was simply representing what the painter felt about the direction the country was taking. If you looked at the painting, he explained, it evidently showed that the scene was taking place in the cockpit of an aircraft. Looking more closely, you could see an oncoming plane, which would probably result in a mid-air crash, the kind of thing most of us fear. It was a powerful commentary on the current state of the country and Mabulu’s opinion of the quality of leadership in the country.
Other points and perspectives ranged from how the painting served as a medium for Mabulu to express his political opinions and how it was a democratic form of expression, to how the ruling party could possibly use it as a “diversionary tactic”, as Dr Makhunga suggested.
Human dignity and freedom expression, the panel agreed, were both rights that all citizens of this country were entitled to. But does the one supersede the other in our constitution, and what are the limits on expression before it violates the human dignity of others?
In the Bill of Rights, chapter 2, it states that “Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.”
However, it also stipulates that the freedom of expression of South Africans includes the freedom to receive or impart information or ideas, and the freedom of artistic creativity.
Mabulu’s paintings tread the fine line between respect for actual people (Zuma and Atul Gupta) and his right to express himself, as his work does not meet the standards for the only kind of speech that is utterly prohibited constitutionally: propaganda for war; incitement of imminent violence; or the advocacy of hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, which constitute incitement to cause harm.
From a criminal point of view, he’s therefore protected. However, if the president were to lodge a civil case of slander in court against him, it would be interesting to see what a judge might find.
Zuma has, in the past, attempted to sue commentators and artists for defaming him. None of those cases ever went the distance in court, and it’s possible he’s lost his appetite for litigation. He even sued Darren “Whackhead” Simpson at one point.
Perhaps what was most interesting about the panel discussion was the conclusion that if human dignity were to be treated as a superior right to freedom of expression, this would inevitably result in censorship, the very thing tearing the SABC apart at the seams.
As Phakamile Hlubi, the dialogue’s facilitator, asked: Should we allow censorship to be the gatekeeper of human dignity, or should we simply continue to use our democratic rights to create and agitate for change – even if, along the way, that creates offence?