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In Defence of Ayanda Mabulu

This controversy only reveals our low levels of art literacy and the ever-shrinking space for free expression of unpopular ideas and offending speech.

24/04/2017 03:58 SAST | Updated 25/04/2017 06:41 SAST
Felix Dlangamandla / Foto24 / Getty Images
South African artist Ayanda Mabulu

Ayanda Mabulu has again stirred a furious blizzard with his latest painting showing President Zuma sodomizing our icon and former president, Nelson Mandela. Reactions on Twitter ranged from "distasteful", "disrespectful" to too many rights in the constitution. I showed my Joburg friend the painting. Disgusted, he protested that he doesn't like Zuma but Mabulu should leave Madiba out of it. I pointed out to him that but Madiba is not immune from satire and caricature. He said yes but I don't like this sh*t.

The furore on Twitter was just uniform as though all the crusaders were robots programmed to react in the same fashion. This storm is hot on the heels of the Zapiro controversy in which the cartoonist was roundly condemned for using rape as a metaphor. But I daresay that this is a storm in a teacup which only reveals our low levels of art literacy and the ever-shrinking space for free expression of unpopular ideas and offending speech.

The first discernible thread from the chorus of criticism by our self-righteous mob is the suggestion that Mabulu is disrespectful to Madiba for this kind of crude carnal display with President Zuma. But they are wrong. In a free society like ours, no man is immune from caricature, ridicule and satire. Our mob suffers from the same disease of insincere deference to heroes in which you spit contrived outrage at the slightest mention, suggestion or association of your hero with anything considered rude, unworthy or immoral. It is my argument that Madiba would himself be staggered by the preposterous notion that his name is off-limits to satire, ridicule or caricature.

The second discernible thread from our moral crusaders is that Mabulu's painting is vulgar, meaningless and only intended to cause shock and attract attention rather than serve as a fair critique on the state of our politics. But what right to they have to silence a vulgar (assuming it is) piece of art? The point of any society based on a common set of written rules is so we can have an agreed standard of what is permissible or not. Nothing shall be impermissible just because a group of masked Nazis, large or small, find it vulgar and offensive. This is the point of a free society. You have a right to be offended, but the fact that you are offended does not mean you are right. It only means that your moral sensibilities are fragile. You have a right to be angry, but the fact that you are angry does not mean the painting is wrong. It only means that you are too easy to annoy.

Some of the moral crusaders barked at Mabulu: what point is he making with this painting anyway? So the argument ran: I don't understand the point he is making with this painting, therefore it is wrong. But this is a new level of absurdity and goes to show the lack of critical engagement which is the disease that generally afflicts our moral crusaders. There is no attempt to understand the meaning of the painting and open one's mind to the possibility that they may be too sensitive, easily offended and unjustified in their reaction.

South Africa seems to be in a vicious tailspin in which unpopular, offensive ideas and metaphors are mercilessly struck out of our vocabulary by thought police and moral crusaders.

South Africa seems to be in a vicious tailspin in which unpopular, offensive ideas and metaphors are mercilessly struck out of our vocabulary by thought police and moral crusaders. It is now official that by this law of the jungle, no South African cartoonist may use rape as a metaphor to criticize unworthy conduct or depraved leaders. This mob has not stopped there. This set of arbitrary, unwritten rules is being cast wider to cover sodomy so that no South African artist may use sodomy as a metaphor to criticize corruption and corrupt leaders. But what right do they have?

The true measure of a free society is that a man must be safe to insult and offend anyone he dares to. As our crusaders go on the offensive, my mind flashes back to The Spear episode in which there were threats of violence and destruction of property because the crusaders were offended, not because the law is on their side nor do they care about it. Today rape and sodomy have been outlawed as metaphors, but what is next? In Zimbabwe, it is a crime to insult President Mugabe and this could be where we are headed.

This tyranny of moral crusaders, with its companion of political correctness, is a threat to freedom of expression. No group of people, however vocal or well-meaning, should have a right to impose their unwritten rules and moral sensibilities on others. If this self-righteous mob is convinced that this kind of speech is not protected by the constitution, let them legislate their moral sensibilities or tear the constitution. In the meantime, Mabulu has a right to offend and caricature anyone. He does not have to make his paintings morally or culturally acceptable. Organised morality and culture, the top two instruments of oppression throughout history, must get used to insulting speech, ridicule and caricature. Start work on your next painting Mabulu.