An image you'd prefer you hadn't seen

Andrew Donaldson on Ayanda Mabulu’s latest work 'The Rape of the Economy', and other matters


SINCE he has taken the trouble to show it to us, I suppose we must talk about Ayanda Mabulu’s latest work, The Rape of the Economy, which is perhaps best described as a painting of President Jacob Zuma scaring the horses with Nelson Mandela.

It is an unforgettable image and most people who’ve seen it certainly wish they hadn’t. Whether it has artistic merit is moot, but there’s no denying it has left the chattering classes in high dudgeon.

Some commentators have expressed pity for Mabulu. They claim the painting is another desperate attempt to create the sort of furore that surrounded Brett Murray’s The Spear and thereby drive up the value of his work.

If so, it wasn’t the only act of desperation that we’ve recently witnessed. 

One was Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s lunatic presser on Wednesday. Quite what its purpose was, we cannot say. Perhaps the delusional former SABC chief operating officer just missed telling us what a bright young thing he is.

Which he did once again, assuring the country he was now a bigger and better brain surgeon than ever, that he could easily be the country’s next president, and that the only thing preventing him from walking on water was the possibility that his shoes may get wet. 

Nothing new or startlingly original in that, I guess, just the same old, same old.

Another dire bid for our attention was the ham-handed attack on the media by the disgraced former ANC spokesman and serial fibber, Carl Niehaus. 

Niehaus’s outburst took us by surprise. We all thought he was dead, here at the Mahogany Ridge. After all, he did once tell an East London travel agent that he had leukaemia in order to secure a R100 000 ten-day holiday in Mauritius for him and his family. 

That was in the mid-2000s. In 2012, the agent, Cheryl Clur, told a talk radio station that she tracked Niehaus down 18 months after the holiday to get him to pay. He still owed R75 000, she said.

Last weekend, writing in his blog, Niehaus accused journalists of being white monopoly capital’s “frontline foot soldiers” and warned that those who did not want to be “led to the slaughterhouse” had best “brace themselves for the no-holds barred propaganda onslaught that is being unleashed. Character assassinations will, even more than now, become the order of the day.”

Coincidentally, Niehaus’s blog is called “Carl’s Corner’, so named because that’s where he was sent for telling big porkies about his academic qualifications. But that’s neither here nor there. He has come to shield Jacob Zuma from editorial commentary.

As he put it, “I have honestly never experienced the levels of vilification, and sheer vile unbridled hatred, that is now being puked out over the President by the mainstream media in South Africa, and I doubt if one will be able to find a worse example anywhere in the world.”

This loathing was “personified” by Jonathan Shapiro, the cartoonist known as Zapiro, “who openly speaks about his hatred for President Zuma, and does not baulk at using the most appalling rape analogies in his cartoons”.

But, as analogies go, they’re nowhere near as unbaulked as those in Mabulu’s paintings. 

The artist feels there is nothing disrespectful about his latest work. He told TMG Digital, “The rapist is continuing to do what he is good at. The victims will be blamed. The oppressor will not be blamed. The focus needs to be on the doer of these things.”

Mandela’s presence in the picture, he said, represented South Africans who were optimistic about the country’s future. He would have understood the message here. “Nelson Mandela himself is not God. He is not the Messiah and he understood that himself. We‚ the people‚ are the Messiah.”

Don’t tell Hlaudi that.

The ANC, meanwhile, has had a few things to say about the painting. They regard Mabulu’s work “as crossing the bounds of rationality to degradation, exploiting the craft of creative art for nefarious ends”.

They further urged us all to remain calm and ignore this provocative work; it did nothing to strengthen moral fibre or, heaven forfend, contribute to nation-building. 

“The ANC,” it added, “will leave it to psychoanalysts and scholars of art to debate Mabulu’s narcissistic obsession with the phallus and human genitalia in general.”

Worryingly, the party has, among other courses of action, reserved the right to seek recourse through the criminal justice system. While it said it respected the artist’s rights to freedom of expression, it claimed that no freedoms, including that of artistic expression, were unlimited.

But then that’s what censorship’s all about, isn’t it?

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.