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The Globe and Mail

Zuma's genitals a useful distraction from weak South African economy

South African ruling party supporters sing during a protest in Johannesburg, South Africa on Tuesday May 29, 2012.

Themba Hadebe/AP/Themba Hadebe/AP

The phone call was not quite as menacing as those I would occasionally get from the Chinese authorities when I was based in Beijing. But the intent was the same – to suggest that there are limits to what the foreign media can say.

The woman from South Africa's government information agency said her bosses had told her to call me. They wanted to know why I had written that political motives were involved in the great national controversy over "The Spear" – the painting by satirical artist Brett Murray that portrayed President Jacob Zuma with naked genitals.

I asked her if there was anything factually inaccurate in what I had written. She said she would check with her superiors and call me back. She never did.

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Perhaps the matter was dropped when the government agency realized that most South African commentators were making the exact same point: the huge uproar over "The Spear" was orchestrated by those with an interest in rallying political support for Mr. Zuma.

It was hardly a coincidence that the president's supporters chose to launch a massive campaign against an insulting artist at a time when Mr. Zuma is facing an intense battle over his ANC leadership. The culture wars are a useful distraction from the economic issues where his record has been dubious. The easiest way to win sympathy for the president is to portray him as a victim of abuse.

What was most remarkable was how the ANC manipulated all levers of its government and political machinery to propel this campaign.

The phone call to me from the information agency was just the tip of the spear, so to speak. Other sections of the party and government were issuing a flurry of angry statements, filing court actions, calling for boycotts of the newspaper that published the painting, and – in one particularly absurd incident – criticizing a local television station for failing to broadcast the tears of a presidential lawyer who broke down during the court hearing over the painting.

Even the Film and Publication Board, a government agency, is holding public hearings this week on whether to impose restrictions on the painting. It seems that "The Spear" has become the government's single highest priority.

Today the ANC and its partners, the national trade union congress and South African Communist Party, declared a full and final victory in their campaign. Hundreds of ANC members marched to the Goodman Gallery, the suburban art gallery that had displayed "The Spear." While police protected the gallery building, a host of Zuma supporters gave speeches condemning the gallery, threatening to shut it down, and declaring that the painting was a criminal "insult" to the president, and to blacks as a whole.

At the end of the speeches, the ANC handed over a list of its grievances to the gallery, and then immediately announced that the gallery had agreed to the last remaining demand: removing the painting from its website.

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The painting itself had already been vandalized and removed from display, and the newspaper that originally reproduced the painting has removed it from its website too. So the ANC proclaimed victory – even though the painting still can be found in hundreds of other websites and newspapers around the country and the world.

Later in the day, the Goodman Gallery issued its own statement, denying that it had agreed to remove the painting from its website. The battle continues.

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