The takedown of The Spear: necessary maybe, but sad all the same

The picture here has been causing a storm in South Africa and one of the country’s papers, the City Press of Johannesburg, has just been forced to remove it from its website. The image, by a South African artist Brett Murray, portrays South African president Jacob Zuma in the style of Soviet artists painting Lenin, but with one significant difference below the waist. (New readers start here).
The story can be told in two columns by the City Press’s editor Ferial Haffajee. At first she stood out against the bullying and the threats; then, fearful of the threats to her own staff and to the paper’s street sellers, she took the image off the site “out of care and fear”. As she writes, she was sick of the personal abuse. I can’t imagine that being a single, Muslim woman newspaper editor in South Africa is easy at the best of times (she was the first Coloured South African to edit a major paper). Threats of violence and abuse won decisively in this ugly time.

As Ferial Haffajee says, it would be tragic if art in South Africa descended to the coded symbolism used by Chinese artists like Ai Weiwei. But this is hardly an encouraging sign.

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