Satirical artist Brett Murray’s depiction of Zuma — branded “indecent” by the president’s ruling African National Congress — was vandalised on Tuesday amid a national furore.
Lawyers for Zuma, the African National Congress and his children went ahead with a court application against the artist, the Johannesburg gallery that displayed the picture and the City Press newspaper which reproduced it, despite the gallery removing the work and closing its doors.
Defence lawyer Gcina Malindi broke down in making his plea as hundreds of ANC activists demonstrated outside the courthouse and former members of the party’s armed wing in battledress joined riot police on guard.
The judges adjourned the case without a ruling, setting no new date, after voicing doubts that a ban would work.
Opponents say the depiction of Zuma in a Vladimir Lenin pose, dubbed “The Spear”, is disrespectful, racist and an insult to the president, while supporters justify the painting on grounds of freedom of expression protected by the country’s constitution.
“This image is already out there on the Internet,” Judge Fayeeza Kathree-Setiloane told a packed court that included several of Zuma’s many children and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe.
If a permanent interdict was granted that forbade the display of the painting or copies of it, “how will this court monitor compliance?” she asked.
Arguing for Zuma and making reference to the struggle against injustices of the apartheid era, Malindi said the law grants dignity to the people and protects the president’s right to dignity.
“Zuma’s rights to dignity and privacy have been violated,” he said.
Malindi, who was himself tortured by apartheid security forces, said afterwards that talking about the abuse during white minority rule made him emotional.
“As a former activist it brought back all of those issues,” he told reporters.
The hearing was broadcast on national television and a giant screen outside the court but judges forbade footage of his breakdown to be shown.
ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu told journalists outside the courtroom that “we hope our courts will be able to balance the right to freedom of expression but also the fundamental right to human dignity.”
Meanwhile about 1,000 ANC supporters wearing the party’s green, gold and black colours sang and danced in the street as police cordoned off roads around the building.
“In the African renaissance no one is allowed to paint the private parts of our father,” said traditional healer Lucky Maile, who was dressed in ANC banners depicting Zuma and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.
“We have to demolish this gallery for disrespect towards our father,” the 37-year-old told AFP.
The Goodman Gallery closed indefinitely on Tuesday after two protesters smeared red and black paint over parts of the painting showing Zuma’s face and genitals.
The pair — a white man who claimed no political affiliation, and a black man who said he was an ANC member — briefly appeared in court on Wednesday on charges of malicious damage to property. They were granted bail and ordered to return to court on June 24.
The Cape Town-based Murray is a political and social satirical artist. His latest collection titled “Hail to the Thief” was described as “acerbic attacks on abuses of power, corruption and political dumbness” and “attempts to humorously expose the paucity of morals and greed within the ruling elite.”
The polygamous president generated national debate when he married for a sixth time last month. He has four current wives and 21 children, including several out of wedlock.