CAPE TOWN (AFP) – South Africa still needs to heal the wounds of apartheid, 18 years on, President Jacob Zuma said Thursday, amid heated debate over free expression sparked by a controversial artwork.
The ruling African National Congress and an art gallery have sparred bitterly in recent days over a painting that depicts Zuma with his genitals exposed, styled as Vladimir Lenin in a Soviet propaganda poster.
The ANC argued that the painting, which was vandalised, was “vulgar”, violated Zuma’s dignity and evoked historical pain for many South Africans.
Zuma told parliament on Thursday that the nation still needs to heal from the apartheid era that ended in 1994, saying that “this country has a history, a very, very painful history, whose deep scars still show.”
He added that a July nation-building summit will offer South Africa the opportunity to “confront this painful history, with a view to finding final closure and healing. Our people have suffered enough indignity.”
Zuma did not refer to the controversial artwork in his speech, but said the rights to free expression and to dignity need to be balanced.
“We will defend all the rights enshrined in the constitution, including the right to freedom of expression and the right to human dignity,” he said.
“No right is superior to other rights. No right is absolute… No right is so important that it can be used to undermine other rights with impunity.”
The painting by artist Brett Murray sparked legal action, calls by the ANC for a boycott on a weekly newspaper that published the image, and a march Wednesday by the ruling party on the exhibiting Johannesburg gallery.
The gallery has since agreed to remove the artwork and the newspaper has pulled the image of the painting from its website.