Johannesburg: South African President Jacob Zuma and his African National Congress sought a court order on Tuesday to have a painting depicting the President`s genitals removed from an art gallery but two men took matters into their own hands by defacing the portrait with gobs of paint.
The case pits freedom of expression against the right to dignity, both guaranteed by South Africa`s Constitution. The painting by Brett Murray went on display in a Johannesburg gallery this month and came to the ANC`s attention a week later, after local media reported it had been sold.
Zuma, who has a reputation for promiscuity, took the depiction very personally and compared himself somewhat ironically to a rape victim. Zuma himself was put on trial for rape, and acquitted, in 2006.
"The portrayal has ridiculed and caused me humiliation and indignity," Zuma contended in an affidavit filed yesterday with the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg.
Presiding over the hearing in a courtroom a few kilometres (miles) from the gallery, Judge Fayeeza Kathree-Setiloane said the full three-judge bench should hear the case because the national interest and constitutional issues are at stake. She said the hearing would recommence on Thursday.
Zuma and the ANC sought to have the painting, titled "The Spear”, removed from the Goodman Gallery and to stop the newspaper City Press from displaying a photo of it on its website.
At about the time the hearing was under way, two men wielding cans of red and black paint calmly walked up to the painting hanging on a gallery wall and took turns defacing it.
"Now it`s completely and utterly destroyed," said Iman Rappetti, a reporter for a South African TV channel who happened to be on the scene at the time as her camera rolled. Her channel showed a man in a tweed jacket painting a red X over the President`s genital area and then his face.
Next, a man in a hoodie used his hand to smear black paint over the President`s face and down the painting. The men were finally detained by gallery staff the second man was head-butted and thrown to the ground before he was handcuffed and police took them away.