Faced with declining approval ratings and a looming leadership challenge, South African President Jacob Zuma believes he's found a winning issue: a painting of him with his genitals exposed.
The painting by controversial artist Brett Murray, almost unnoticed when it was first displayed in an avant-garde Johannesburg gallery on May 10, has suddenly become the hottest issue in South Africa – thanks to a carefully orchestrated campaign by Mr. Zuma's supporters, who are casting him as the wounded victim of a racist attack.
The painting, entitled "The Spear," portrays Mr. Zuma in a heroic revolutionary pose, modelled on Soviet statues of Vladimir Lenin. But a closer look reveals that an image of genitalia has been pasted on the exterior of his pants. The gallery says the image is a symbolic one, referring to global issues of sex and power.
The painting would have remained unknown to the vast majority of South Africans, but the ruling African National Congress decided to launch a ferocious campaign against it. The ANC and Mr. Zuma's office have issued a series of outraged statements about the painting, have gone to court to seek a legal ban and have mobilized their supporters in a series of angry street protests.
The issue has become so heated that one of the country's biggest churches has publicly called for the artist to be stoned to death. It accused him of "evil toward black people."
The ANC has accused the artist and the gallery of "apartheid" tendencies – a bizarre accusation, since Mr. Murray is a well-known political satirist who often attacked the apartheid regime in his work before the ANC gained power. The gallery that displayed The Spear, the Goodman Gallery, has supported anti-apartheid artists since the 1960s and was often the target of censorship attempts by the apartheid authorities.
In an affidavit in the court battle, the gallery drew attention to a similarly explicit portrait in Canada. A nude painting of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, including a glimpse of genitalia, has been displayed in a public library in Kingston without any attempts to ban it. Instead, a Harper spokesman jokingly complained that the portrait should not have included a dog because "the PM is a cat person."
But the ANC has shrewdly seized on an issue that hits all the hot buttons of South African politics: race, sex and culture. It hopes to rally blacks to support Mr. Zuma at a time when his poll numbers have sunk and his political rivals are more critical of him.
White portraits of black sexuality are a fraught subject in South Africa. Although apartheid ended in 1994, many blacks are still resentful of the affluence and economic power of most whites. There is also a perception that whites are disrespectful of African cultural traditions, including polygamy, which is practised by Mr. Zuma.
Many blacks also complain that the media unfairly portray the President as a sex-hungry rapist, even though he was acquitted of rape charges in 2006.
At a rally this week, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe implied that the painting was racially motivated. "They hate us as they did before 1994," he told the protesters.
Even though the painting has now been removed from display – because it was vandalized by two protesters – the campaign against it is continuing with relentless fervour. Hundreds of people flocked to an ANC rally against the painting here on Tuesday, and another rally is scheduled for Thursday, along with another bid for a court injunction to ban it.
"We call upon all South Africans to support this noble course and to demonstrate rejection to this act of indecency, vulgarity and disrespect of the constitution of our country," the ANC thundered in its latest statement on Wednesday.
The painting must be banned "to restore the good moral fibre of our society," the party added.
But not all blacks are rallying to Mr. Zuma's side. Tselane Tambo, daughter of black liberation hero Oliver Tambo, criticized the President for trying to ban a work of art.
"Art is not bound by culture," she wrote in her blog. "Art is a medium of free expression. … It seeks to please no one."