Trousers of Zuma must be declared a Key Point
Business Day, 25 May, 2012
FORMER president Thabo Mbeki once complained inelegantly but with some justification that Europeans have conceived of Africans as “rampant sexual beasts … unable to keep it in our pants”. Despite this presidential precedent, it is difficult to believe that President Jacob Zuma was personally troubled by Brett Murray’s depiction of him.
Murray’s artwork has now generated profound reactions across South African society — but of course it could not have done so simply spontaneously.
How then can we understand the political decision by Zuma’s advisers — taken after some days of reflection — to mobilise the deep sentiments that surround conceptions of sexuality?
First, Zuma has been unable to shake off negative perceptions about the enrichment of his relatives, the e-tolling saga, and the leadership of crime and justice institutions. The Murray controversy has pushed these issues to the sidelines and positioned Zuma once again as a victim.
Second, Zuma’s team has used racial solidarity to trump valid concerns about the tribalisation of the African National Congress (ANC). Last week Zuma was the head of an incumbent ethnic faction; today he represents all Africans in their struggle against white dehumanisation.
Third, Zuma’s advisers are laying down a pattern of complaint around the president’s “right to privacy”. If Zuma leaves criticism of his sexual behaviour unchallenged, he might be unable to counter sex-related exposés in the days immediately before the Mangaung elective conference. Zuma’s team appears especially preoccupied with how legally to restrain the newspaper that most prominently reproduced the painting.
The ANC has claimed “this distasteful depiction of the president has violated his individual right to dignity as contained in the constitution of our country”. Many legal commentators appear untroubled by the potential implications of the right to dignity. They indicate that the president is less fully protected by such a right than an ordinary man or woman because of his voluntary exposure to public scrutiny. Legal scholar Conor O’mahoney, however, has highlighted constitutional confusions that can arise where dignity is treated both as a principle and as a right.
In most legal systems, dignity is understood as a fundamental principle that underpins human rights law. Human beings possess dignity by virtue of their humanity, and their equal and inalienable rights derive from this inherent dignity.
In the South African constitution, dignity is indeed understood in just this way. It is also, however, confusingly described on four occasions as a right in itself, and Section 36 appears to suggest that the right to dignity cannot be subordinated to any other right. Parliament has already passed an Equality Act that prohibits hate speech — so curtailing the right to free speech — in part it seems to defend the right to human dignity. It seems possible that less gifted judges traversing this intellectual minefield may yet trigger unpredictable legal explosions.
Popular affront at the portrait has been linked repeatedly to Zuma’s position as state president. His dignity arguably embodies, or at least symbolises, the dignity of other, especially black, citizens. His spokesmen have deliberately conflated the president’s right to dignity with the right to dignity of the individual who happens to be president.
A president’s dignity is always hard to separate from matters of state authority. One private reaction to Murray’s portrait was that the president’s trousers should henceforth be declared a strategic installation under the 1980 National Key Points Act. The garment would then be subject to annual security compliance audits; photographs or drawings of the Key Point would be prohibited; and information about “access and egress” incidents could be revealed by the news media only with the written permission of the minister of safety and security.
Dignity is unfortunately etymologically associated with qualities such as majesty, decorum, greatness, and inviolability that can easily be construed as the inherent attributes of every state president.
Butler teaches politics at University of Cape Town.