Recently a painting that depicted a certain Head of state with his genitals exposed made the news. The painting is a criticism of the leader’s personality and governing ability!

Now, while this description would cause South Africans to think of a painting of President Zuma entitled The Spear,[fig.1]

Canadians would have thought about a painting called Emperor Haute Couture  which depicts their Prime Minster Stephen Harper reclining in the nude [*1].

Both the Prime Minister of Canada and the President of South Africa have undergone the same treatment.

However, the reaction in Canada to Emperor Haute Couture was quite different to the reaction in South Africa to The Spear.

In South Africa there has been public outcry, protest, law suits, vandalism and heated debate.

By contrast Canada’s reaction to their painting was quite different. While it invited some criticism, mostly it was met with humour. While there was a smattering of debate between political commentators, the politicians showed little interest [*2].

Why is it that South Africans reacted so differently to the Canadians? And how are Christians to make sense of and engage with the issues raised from the fallout surrounding The Spear painting?

On the 10th of May this year Cape town based artist Brett Murray showed his The Spear at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg as part of an exhibit called “Hail to the Thief II”.

The exhibit featured various pieces that were critical of the ANC and suggestive of corruption and bad governance. [*3]

Mr Zuma is depicted in a stance similar to that of the founder of the Soviet Communist party, Vladimir Lenin, in the poster, Lenin Lived, Lenin is Alive, Lenin Will Live by Victor Ivanov. [fig.3]

However, unlike Lenin, Zuma’s genitals are exposed.

After the City Press newspaper published an article about the exhibit with a photograph of The Spear the ANC issued a press release on 17 May 2012 expressing outrage about the painting and their intention to apply to the High Court to have it removed [*4].

The gallery’s lawyers responded by saying that the painting would stay up until the show was over, citing censorship as the reason.

The ANC also demanded that the image be taken down from the City Press’ website and boycott the paper [*5].

The ANC call to boycott City Press was subsequently condemned by the International Press Institute (IPI).

The painting made headlines again when it was defaced by two men on the 22nd of May 2012, in protest of the President’s dignity. The gallery has since removed the painting [6*].

It is clear that this painting has excited much controversy in our country!

The debate centres around two clashing viewpoints – respect of authority and freedom of speech! Which do you value more highly – Authority or Truth?

Comments in our papers show that your viewpoint can be linked to your cultural worldview.

Some comments state that “this painting is an affront to African culture” [*7].

Further comments state: “The office of the presidency has been abused and mocked in the most un-African manner!” [*8] and “As lawsuits were thrown around it was said the artists were out of tune with the masses who saw no African ‘Ubuntu’ in mocking a sitting president in this manner.”

It is clear that one side is upset that the President has been disrespected. These people are upset because they feel that no matter what your opinion respect and honour of authority is of primary importance. To do anything else is to be un-African.

The other side, however, says “So what, presidents are not demigods and they must be teased.” They believe that to censor such a painting is an infringement of freedom of expression/ speech.

The gallery’s initial response was to keep the painting up on the grounds that taking it down “would be censorship” [*7]. Taking it down amounted to threatening the media [*10] and the country’s constitutional rights [*11].

So there are two voices; one calling for respect of authority (an African viewpoint), the other for freedom of speech and the constitution (a Western viewpoint). It should come as no surprise therefore that, being a predominantly Western country, Canada did not experience as much controversy.

While South Africa is greatly influenced by a Western worldview it is still an African country. This has resulted in a clash between the two worldviews. The African worldview prizes respect and honour, while the Western view prizes truth and freedom of expression.

Both worldviews have good and bad points. The danger evident in a Western worldview is that it can lead people to dishonour their leaders in the name of truth. The danger in an African worldview is that it can lead people to subversion of the truth in the name of respect.

Both truth and respect, however, are good biblical principles. So how do we uphold these values not from a Western or an African viewpoint but from a Christian, biblical view? How should the gospel cause us to respond?

In Romans 13 it is clear that God calls us to honour those in authority, parents, teachers, bosses and Presidents, even if we think that they don’t deserve it. This clashes with the Western view. On the other hand Christians are called to proclaim the truth; freedom of speech, therefore, is a great ally and luxury.

Christians should support freedom of speech for the following reasons: Firstly, freedom of speech is one of the most important weapons in combating corruption and the abuse of power, whether it be in the municipal or commercial sector. This is a good and honouring thing (Eph 5: 8-13).

Secondly, freedom of speech protects religious freedom. This is good for Gospel proclamation and gives people a choice to respond to Christ [*13]. This will mean that as a Christian I will fight for the rights of those of other religions to have their say.

Thirdly, freedom of speech and of conscience gives individuals the opportunity to object to reprehensible things in society [*12].

However, Christians also know that freedom of speech must have some limits. These are seen in the following areas: Firstly, in defamation (the action of damaging the good reputation of someone; slander, [Ref slander Lev 19:16, 1 Pet 2:1]).

Secondly, in incitement to riot (to stir up people to commit unlawful and violent behaviour [Prov 16:29; Lev 19:16]).

Thirdly, when it comes to obscenity (obscene behaviour, language, or images, [Eph 5:4]), and lastly when it comes to child pornography.

So for Christians while freedom of speech is a good thing it does have its limits… (Rom 13:13; Col 3:5). Wickedness cannot be allowed in the name of “Freedom of Speech”. And love of the truth, together with respect for authority, must be upheld because of the gospel.

As Christians we are called to a different worldview and culture. We are to give honour where honour is due (1 Tim 5). It is also right to have the freedom to speak out against corruption and to point out the faults in our leaders. But the way in which this is done is important. We must be thoroughly Christian in the way we do it. We are to speak truth and we are to do it with respect.

So to the Christian, respect and truth go hand in hand, never at the cost of the other. This is a challenge to both Western and African worldviews. But Christians are marked by a new culture, the culture of the kingdom of God. They are to live in a way that honours the greatness and authority of the Lord Jesus Christ.


Written by Scott Seivewright


References and Sources


*2: The Star 01 June 2012 9:14:30 AM SAST–?star/art–?helps–?to–?expose–?the–?naked–?truth–?1.1305811








*10:Sky News.–?news/article/16234886

*11:–?murrays–?spear accesed 19 June 2012

*12: accessed 20/06/2011 11am

*13: Poltics According to the Bible; Wayne Grudem; Zondervan 2010