Art criticism: ANC KZN style

Andrew Donaldson on the fearsome offence caused by the pupils of Westville Boys High

NEWS of the fearful sort has reached us at the Mahogany Ridge. It seems that, once again, the ruling party has been terrified by works of art of a satirical nature.

Grateful thanks, then, to the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal for alerting us to the offensive pieces in question. Had not provincial spokesman Senzo Mkhize waved around his soiled fascist trousers so demonstrably we may never have known of the T-shirts on display at the Westville Boys High School matric art exhibition in Durban.

As a result of the subsequent "political row" - as some newspapers have called it - the school's headmaster, Trevor Hall, has issued a statement in an apparent bid to put the matter to rest. 

There was, alas, little chance of that happening in a hurry.

The school's visual art syllabus, Hall explained, included a section on social and political commentary. Over the years this had produced art "expressive of a wide range of opinions"; pupils were free to comment on society as they saw fit as was their constitutional right. 

"I note," he continued, "that the art work of some of our learners, in the form of printed T-shirts on display, has caused offence to a political party. The three artworks in question were created by free-thinking learners as part of their art portfolios for examination."

In addition to fanciful notions that young people enjoy constitutional rights and are free to think for themselves, Hall's reference to the ANC as a mere "political party" was most unfortunate. 

It seems blasphemous to think of Africa's oldest liberation movement as a featureless, anonymous entity when it is commonly held that, of all the parties out there, it alone has been ordained by God to lead us to the promised ubuntuland. 

This, at least, is the gospel according to President Jacob Zuma, who was the subject of one of the Westville T-shirts. He appears as the avuncular grocer in the logo of a well-known biscuit manufacturer, with the legend "Bakers, est 1851" altered to "Fakers, est 1994". Another features former president Nelson Mandela as Colonel Sanders in a send-up of the KFC logo. Both illustrations appear in the colours of the ANC.

While we sort of get the former, the latter is a bit lost on us, and it's perhaps a pity that Hall didn't also offer an analysis of the pupils' work in his statement. Unlike the ruling party, not all of us are experts when it comes to art, you know.

Speaking of expertise, Mkhize's intemperate outburst revealed a certain deftness when it came to the cliché. The crippling blows he dealt the English language reminded Ridge regulars of the legendary Brian O'Nolan, whose "Catechism of Cliché" pieces for the Irish Times, written under the pen-name Myles na cGopaleen, are worth revisiting - if only to imagine the field day he'd have with the modern ANC media statement.

These are T-shirts, are they not?

"They are an outrage, an attack on the ANC and the country. They reflect how democratically-elected African leaders are undermined."

By whom?

"Certain institutions."

And the ANC?

"Is concerned that pupils are being used to further their interests."

What kind of pupils?"

"Innocent ones."

And these interests?


What sort of citizen would bring all this to your attention?

"A responsible one."

To what then does the party commit itself?

"To mobilising our society to reject all racist tendencies."

Where are these tendencies?

"In our midst."

Where is it that the ANC wants to get with this?

"To the bottom of the matter."

When will the perpetrators be exposed?


Where will they be found?

"Behind this anarchy."

Their deed?

"Is despicable."

What sort of tactics are used to fuel this hatred?


On what does it border?


Their vendetta?


How bent are they in their pursuit?


What do you want from the school?

"An apology."

Granted. The school has apologised. What now?

"The apology is rejected."

And so on. If anyone is to blame for all this, it could quite possibly be Gwede Mantashe, the party's bad-tempered goblin. As general secretary of the ANC, Mantashe led the great popular charge last year against Brett Murray's The Spear, the flattering painting of the president. 

So compelling was his fiery, rhetoric-choked display that it seems everyone has been inspired to be a critic.

A version of this article first appeared in The Weekend Argus.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter