JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A white man's painting of a black president, genitals exposed, slashed open an ugly racial divide in South Africa this week, leading to death threats against the artist, calls for the boycott of a newspaper, vandalism of the artwork and the temporary closure of a gallery.
The issue grew more heated Thursday when President Jacob Zuma's lawyer broke down and wept after tough questioning from a white High Court judge during a hearing on Zuma's efforts to have the painting permanently banned from public display.
Attorney Gcina Malindi cried when questioned by Judge Neels Claasen about why the painting should be seen as racist and offensive to black South Africans. The court immediately adjourned and later ordered the media not to broadcast images of the lawyer weeping.
Malindi was an activist in the struggle against apartheid and was jailed for treason in the 1980s. He later told journalists he broke down because the trial brought back bitter memories.
"I was just overcome by emotions, and there is a history to it as a former activist," he said, according to the newspaper City Press. "As an advocate, we are supposed to be trained not to be emotional when we appear in court."
Brett Murray's painting, "The Spear," was part of an exhibition called "Hail to the Thief II," a blunt critique charging that the ruling African National Congress was corrupt and had abandoned its socialist ideals. Zuma has called the artwork personally offensive, and ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe, who was in court for Thursday's hearing, has termed it racist.
Many black South Africans were uneasy with the confrontational imagery of the painting, with some mounting arguments that African culture respected elders, hence the display was offensive and insensitive. Others argued it recalled brutal apartheid searches, which often saw black males stripped naked.
But their opponents in a fierce public debate contended that Zuma -- who once had sex with an HIV-positive family friend half his age without using a condom but was acquitted of her rape accusation -- has laid himself bare to such parodies.
"Zuma's [image] is of a man whose concentration is on sex and political self-preservation. He has done more to provide fodder for racist stereotypes than any black South African has done," South African columnist Justice Malala wrote in the British newspaper the Guardian on Wednesday, dismissing arguments about African cultural sensibilities.
As debate raged, the work was vandalized Tuesday at the Goodman Gallery, a leading Johannesburg art space, by two men in swift succession -- one white, one black -- who claimed they didn't know one another. The gallery closed its doors temporarily and moved the painting.
Nonetheless, Zuma and the ANC broadened their legal action from an effort against the gallery and City Press, which posted the image on its website, to ensure the painting was not displayed anywhere in public. ANC has called for a boycott of the newspaper.
Though the ANC has argued the painting is an affront to Zuma's dignity as president, Judge Claasen said the law offered no protection for the dignity of either presidency or the party, and the case could only weigh any offense to Zuma personally.
The court must balance this against the strong protection offered in the South African Constitution for freedom of artistic expression.
Claasen asked Malindi if the ANC would be in court opposing the painting if it had shown apartheid-era President F.W. de Klerk. "What evidence is there that this is a colonial attack on the black cultures of this country?" he asked.
"There have been heavy suggestions that only the educated understand art and it is beyond the comprehension of people who don't belong to this group," Malindi responded. He argued that the court should take into account how the painting would be perceived by many black South Africans who were denied an education under apartheid.
"I implore the court and those who convey messages to consider the diversity of South Africa. There is a super-class of people who believe that things should be seen in their eyes," Malindi said, before he broke down.
Claasen said three black artists had submitted that the painting wasn't racist. "This is black against black," he told the court.
The hearing has been adjourned until next week.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: African National Congress supporters sing and dance outside the High Court in Johannesburg, South Africa on Thursday as President Jacob Zuma's lawyers sought an order banning the display of a now-defaced painting of the president. Credit: Themba Hadebe / Associated Press