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Redebating the Spear: A review of 'Spearheading Debate' by Steven C. Dubin

By M Blackman on 08 April

Spearheading Debate

Spearheading Debate, 2014. Photograph

'Jacob Zuma is not to be trifled with. He is wily, strategic, scheming and, most importantly, he is acutely aware that he must preserve and protect himself at all times.' This was Justice Malala’s verdict on why Kgalema Motlanthe failed in his attempt to wrest the ANC’s presidency away from the man popularly known as JZ, at the 2012 Mangaung Conference. Certainly those who care to read the newspapers are well versed in this kind of behaviour from our president. ‘Strategic and scheming’ have, after all, been aspects of Zuma’s political character since his public battles began ten years ago with Thabo Mbeki.

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However, unlike his more Machiavellian opponents, Zuma’s scheming works simply, his strategies are obvious. He is a populist whose appeal lies in the simplicity and prejudice of his arguments. His and his coterie’s modus operandi are charm, deflection and a firm thumbing massage to the pressure points of poplar prejudices. It works on a platform of creating scapegoats, throwing curve balls and pointing at alibis – here a ‘fire pool’, there an architect, over to the leeward a government minister, right ahead apartheid, and, if no one else can be found, then an ‘agent’ of apartheid in the form of a Zapiro or Bulelani Ngcuka.1 But no episode would so define just how this scheme works more than The Spear incident.   

Prof Steven C. Dubin’s Spearheading Debate: Culture Wars and Uneasy Truces was published in the wake of The Spear controversy in 2012. It is an exhaustive documentation of the last twenty-five years of what Dubin terms the ‘culture wars’ of South Africa, that is to say ‘the public conflicts based upon incompatible world views regarding moral authority.’ As Dubin states at the beginning of the book, culture wars (like the famous Piss Christ incident in the US) are largely politicians’ attempts to ‘attack symbolic targets in an effort to deflect attention from the failure to effectively address the most pressing concerns of their constituents’ (2012, p.1).

In Dubin’s first chapter he expresses some surprise at the lack of familiarity that most South Africans have with the term ‘culture wars.’ But Dubin is an American Professor from Columbia University in New York, not a South African. He lives in a country, and no doubt frequents a circle, where the term is more widely used. And if the name ‘culture wars’ was not familiar to South Africans before the May 2012 hanging of Brett Murray’s painting, then certainly by June of that year the form that these wars take was. 

To be sure, the ANC government had, until that moment, treaded relatively carefully on culture, never allowing it to descend into a call for mass action or legal prosecution. Yet as Dubin retells, there were such occasions when artists and writers did meet with the government’s displeasure. Perhaps the first of these cultural wars began after apartheid in 1996 with the outcry over Kaolin Thomson’s Useful Objects - a ceramic vagina ashtray with a cigarette inserted in it. This was deemed (mistakenly it would seem), by the then-Deputy Speaker of parliament Baleka Mbeta, to be a black woman’s vagina. On reading an ill-informed article in the Mail & Guardian (which suggested that the naïve ceramic artwork was either a ‘black vagina, lips or a turd’), Mbeta put forward publicly that its picture would surely not have been published if it had been of a white woman’s reproductive organ. 

The Deputy Speaker claimed that ‘people’s pride and dignity cannot be trampled on in the name of freedom of expression.’ These comments were to spark off an incendiary and, at times, vicious public debate. Although the incident was no doubt deeply disturbing for the 20-year-old Thomson, it was no more than a ticking off. Certainly most of the debate remained at the level of hermeneutic discussion. What is more, it was argued, as Nomboniso Gasa did in the Mail and Guardian, that Mbeta had every right to test the grounds of freedom of expression – it was, after all, perfectly reasonable for a new deliberative democracy to find where it felt that line should be drawn.

This is a similar point to the one Dubin makes early on in the book: culture wars of this nature occur in countries ‘where there is still space for debate, resistance and dissent. And the possibility of developing new ideas.’ (2012, p.23) Certainly despite the numerous public and parliamentary attacks before The Spear, no South African artists or political activists had been killed or seriously threatened, nor had any person been imprisoned for speaking out against the government or producing works which offended it (of course this was not quite true of journalists under the Mbeki-era). 

Here Dubin seems to be intimating that culture wars are in a sense defined as being part a democratic system – elsewhere he suggests that self-aggrandisement and one-upmanship are their real defining qualities, but these two ideas may not be mutually exclusive. They are, he points out, in stark contrast to public debate in a country like China (one might add Russia, Venezuela and now seemingly Turkey) where the ‘war’ is a fait accompli and divergences of opinion are met with the breaking of limbs, the killing of journalists and jail terms for artists, rather than the merely bruised egos of culture wars. 

This ego-bruising was certainly true of the 1999 JM Coetzee/Thabo Mbeki Disgrace debacle, when certain sections of the South African community became alarmed by President Mbeki’s parliamentary criticism of Coetzee’s Booker Prize winning novel. The incident of course went further with the ANC taking the book to the South African Human Rights Commission, stating that it was a novel that exploited racist stereotypes. However, despite some furious parliamentary exchanges, the only major repercussion the ANC’s criticism of Coetzee’s depiction of black violence against a rootless (and never entirely African) white community, was said to have been Coetzee’s disgruntled departure to Australia in 2002.  

Although the incident was read in the media as a crackdown on freedom of expression, it conversely showed certain sections of the white community’s own reactive and over-sensitive nature. As Imraan Coovadia pointed out in a recent essay on Coetzee’s enigmatic personality, if it was the case that Coetzee left the country due to the public questioning of some of the representations in his novel then it is ‘a tender conscience that can survive racial tyranny, censorship and near civil war only to succumb to Thabo Mbeki’s literary criticism.’ The Disgrace episode was mostly a case of bruised egos resulting from democratic verbal jousts – that is to say it was merely a culture war in the sense defined by Dubin.    

Dubin also goes on to chronicle several other episodes that reached the shrill of governmental disapproval. There was the painter and academic Mark Hipper whose paintings and drawings of naked children (said by him to be intended to represent children coming to terms with their sexuality) were considered pedophilic by the then-Deputy Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, when she saw them at the 1997 National Arts Festival. Sisulu would go on national radio to say: ‘I am saying to you now, and I will say it tomorrow, we do not allow child pornography in whatever form.’ However, the CEO of the Film and Publications Board, Dr Nana Makaula, after visiting the exhibition, stated that the works were ‘bona fide artworks’ and not pornography. Again, much like Hipper’s works, Zanele Muholi’s images of lesbians in naked embraces were considered to be pornographic and ‘against nation building’ by then-Minister of Arts and Culture Lulu Xingwana when they were displayed at the 'Innovative Woman' exhibition that celebrated Woman's Day at Constitution Hill in 2009. 

But here there is a distinction that Dubin fails to make by seemingly equating these three incidents. Looking at them closely, in a South African context, they are not one and the same. Certainly in the case of Disgrace it was a reaction to a particular historical fact called Apartheid. More cynically, it was also an attempt on the part of Mbeki to discredit the so-called ‘white liberals’ who were some of Mbeki’s fiercest critics. But neither of these ideas were at play in the other two episodes. Rather than being motivated by the traditional South African ‘fault line’, they were instead an expression of the painfully conservative South African predilection that transcends the racial divide. Ask most South African’s of all races and they would, no doubt, uphold the conservative judgements of both the ministers in question. And certainly these two incidents served no clear political end; they were merely the personal expressions of people who hold office. In the case of Xingwana, the embarrassment around her comments would partly lead to her re-deployment (slightly ironically to the Women, Children and People with Disabilities portfolio).

Here a point could be made, that Dubin does not make. The cultural wars in America are defined by the politics of liberalism vs conservatism and their two political manifestations, the Democrats and the Republicans. It is not surprising that a Republican would launch a broadside at the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andre Serrano. However, what is perhaps surprising (at least to the politically and socially naïve) is that the ANC, a supposedly progressively liberal party, should be reacting in this manner rather than its more politically conservative opposition. Of course the reality is that much of the ANC (or perhaps more correctly many of its members) are cultural conservatives in the dress of social democrats.

However, Dubin’s interests do not solely lie with these seemingly ‘political’ manifestations of cultural clashes. The book ostensibly begins with a with a recounting of the reaction to Mbongeni Ngema’s controversial song AmaNdiya - a song which accused the Indian community of racism towards blacks, suggesting that ‘they oppress our people.’ Like most racial outbursts in a country highly sensitive to them, this evoked a strong reaction from various sections of the broader community. Even Nelson Mandela attempted to get Ngema to make a public apology, to no avail.  

Of course Ngema’s song is not the only instance of these kinds of pejorative chants. There has been Julius Malema’s re-invoking of the Kill the Boer struggle song, as well as Bok Van Blerk’s De la Ray. In written form there was David Bullard’s crass attempt at trying to ‘say it like it is’ in the Sunday Times and John Matshikiza’s attack on the local Chinese community in Johannesburg. These were all cases, as Dubin puts it, where stereotyping ‘risked discomforting’ those who were targeted.

However, like the Hipper and Muholi incidents, these (with perhaps the exception of Malema) had few political objectives per se. They were divisive, bigoted and expressed attitudes (unfortunately) still held in particular social groups, but they lacked deeper political motivations. In this sense they were not culture wars as such, but merely people expressing distasteful opinions on a public platform – although they were, to a greater or lesser extent, all trying to curry favour with their ‘fans.’ But by Dubin’s own admission, he seems more interested in discussing them as potential cases of hate-speech rather than analyzing them as instances of culture wars. 

To be sure the distinction between hate speech and freedom of expression (in which certain racial outburst may be tolerated) is much like that between pornography and art: it is at times hard to define. Perhaps the most helpful and famous distinction is that of the philosopher John Stuart Mill: 

[…]that it is acceptable to claim that corn dealers starve the poor if such a view is expressed through the medium of the printed page. It is not acceptable to express the same view to an angry mob, ready to explode, that has gathered outside the house of the corn dealer.
On Liberty, Penguin, 2006

This distinction is in fact written into the South Africa’s constitution in what is commonly referred to as the ‘incitement clause’ – hate speech is judged on its potential danger to people’s lives rather than on its potential to injure somebody’s feelings or reputation.

However, as Dubin points out, instances of these kinds of racial name-calling will always be compared with a potential analogue – that is to say the case of Simon Bikindi and his role in Rwandan genocide. In Rwanda the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal (ITC) for Rwanda found Bikindi, the ‘Michael Jackson of Rwanda,’ guilty of actions ‘related to genocide.’ However the popular belief, which Dubin does not go far enough to debunk, is that Bikindi was found guilty because his anti-Tutsi songs were played ‘unremittingly during the slaughter.’ This Dubin seems to confirm with the quote from a Rwandan writing in a South African newspaper: ‘Take it from a Rwandan, in the right circumstances a song intended to call on one ethnic group to confront another can be extremely effective in driving home the message of genocide.’

However, there is here a distortion of the facts. Certainly Bikindi’s songs were played on state radio during the massacres, but the UN’s ICT judgement clearly states that Bikindi was not prosecuted for this, but instead for a speech he made in June 1994 on the main road between Kivumu and Kayove, in north-western Rwanda. As the judgement states:

Simon Bikindi used a public address system to state that the majority population, the Hutu, should rise up to exterminate the minority, the Tutsi […] On his way back, Bikindi used the same system to ask if people had been killing Tutsi, who he referred to as snakes.

Bikindi was prosecuted in line with Mill’s incitement consideration and not merely the public expression of racial hatred. Here certainly there is a distinctive difference between Bikindi and the South Africa examples. However, a question for the book is, are these examples of culture wars or are they merely personal expressions of prejudice? Suffice to say that there is a line that could be drawn here between the two.

Much closer in context to Dubin’s definition of culture wars, however, are those internecine battles surrounding the politics of representation (something that played a part in The Spear) that take place on an almost daily basis within the South African art world. Perhaps the two paradigmatic cases that set the tone for these post-Apartheid manifestations were Steve Hilton-Barber’s photographs of initiates at a ‘bush school’ and Peet Pienaar’s circumcision at the Bell-Roberts Gallery.  

The first case surrounded Hilton-Barber’s photographs, taken on his family’s farm, of an initiation ceremony. These images went on to be displayed at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, where they were met with torrent of criticism – not least by some of the cleaning staff in the Theatre itself. This incident would be, in one way or another, replicated several times over with other photographers. The argument was that Hilton-Barber had no right to represent a culture that was not his, also that the so-called ‘colonial gaze’ was present in the work. Like in many of the cases that would follow, the line was drawn and no quarter given by either side. Here Dubin is on the money when he quotes a commentator who stated that the debate ‘simply stayed in one place and the trenches were dug.'

As Dubin suggests (although seemingly contradicting his earlier assertions), culture wars are not really about ‘constructive dialogue; they are about showboating and political one-upmanship.’ (2012, p.183) And certainly there is one standard rule that applies in the art world as it applies in the more familiar fields of politics: those who shout the loudest ultimately get a bigger slice of the pie (or at least they get more attention, which in the art world is more than half of the battle).  

This firebrand strategy would permeate the Peet Pienaar incident. Pienaar in 2000, as part of a performance at a group show, wished to be circumcised by a black female doctor at the AVA gallery. This received some fierce opposition from fellow artists Zwelethu Mthethwa and Thembinkosi Goniwe. Both threatened to pull out of the exhibition if Pienaar continued with the performance. This forced the gallery to retract Pienaar’s piece from the show. Goniwe, who made his own work about circumcision, refused to see Pienaar’s as anything other than an attack on black culture stating: ‘when are artists going to make art about being white and about their own identity?’ In this case, like so many others, the sheer obstinacy of the Goniwe camp was matched with the stubbornness of Pienaar, who took his penis off to another gallery to have the job done there. 

These moments however, no matter how fraught they were with controversy, racism and cultural insensitivity, stand out in contrast to The Spear for several reasons. One is that the political and legal power brought to bear on Murray and the Goodman Gallery far outweighed anything in the past. In some senses it came close in style to that of an autocratic crackdown. And the repercussions would be severe. 

What is more, the incident disturbingly bore some similarities to the Salman Rushdie Satanic Verses episode. As Nick Cohen said, in his You Can’t Read this Book, before Satanic Verses ‘no honest writer abandoned his or her book because it might upset a powerful lobby.’ Cohen points out that that was soon to change. And likewise the ANC’s reaction to The Spear, as Dubin rightly states, has brought about a new period of self-censorship. South African artists and writers alike tread far more circumspectly today than they did before May 2012.   

What was perhaps more disturbing was that when Blade Nzimande got up to talk to a crowd of about 5000 ANC supporters in front of the Goodman Gallery he came dangerously close to Mill’s ‘speech to an angry crowd outside the corn dealer.’ When Nzimande called for the burning of the image and referred to the dangers of the ‘liberals’ (a publically loaded term in the context of South African politics, denoting white English-speaking racist) the ANC stood on the brink, for the first time in 18 years, of completely ignoring the constitution. 

Dubin perhaps takes this a little further, saying ‘the country was brought to a fever pitch; at moments, a full-scale race war seemed a distinct possibility.’ (2012, p.177) Well, yes and no. Certainly Nzimande’s and the ANC’s actions were dangerous and it may have seemed like things were at ‘fever pitch,’ – only they weren’t. For somebody who was at the march that day, who walked lazily down Jan Smuts Avenue in the winter sun, watching people of all races going about their business, one realized that it was all an orchestrated piece of politicking. It certainly was far more ‘culture war’ than racial war – although how quickly the one can descend into the other is anybody’s guess.  

At the Goodman, the thin line of policeman who were there to halt the march from getting too near the gallery building, joked and stood relaxing as the chanting crowd moved towards them – they did not have their guns at the ready that day. Of course the only real people who were affected by all of this were the unfortunate Murray and his family. As the whole incident stumbled into a political farce with Liza Essers and Ferial Haffajee dutifully apologizing – something Haffajee later said she regretted – Murray was left on the sidelines confused and worried about his and his family’s personal safety.   

Here perhaps Dubin's commentary is misleading, in that he doesn't seem to quite have the feel for South Africa that is needed. While saying this, however, Dubin’s account of all these events is a remarkable effort. Unlike many similar books coming out today it thankfully steers clear of polemic – it leaves most of the opinions to the local commentators. Dubin cleverly sidesteps the issue of representing ‘the other’ (an issue that at times is at the centre of the book), choosing the objective approach of the liberal values he seems to wish to uphold. In all, the book is a great addition to the lamentable trickle of books on South African arts and culture. The simple truth (sadly) is that there are not very many local academics in the field that could pull off as accomplished an account of our own history.


1 The first person that the Zuma camp were to accuse of being an apartheid agent was the then head of the National Prosecuting Authority Bulelani Ngcuka. Ngcuka at the time was investigating Zuma’s involvement in corruption.  In the Hefer Commission that ensued the rather hapless figure of Mac Maharaj, who is now the spokesperson for the president, was questioned as to why he had accused Ngukga of being an apartheid agent.  Maharaj could offer the commission no reasonable answer. He finally admitted: ‘I do not know if Bulelani Ngcuka was an apartheid spy.’