Monday, May 21, 2012

White South Africans Must Look at History to Understand Black People's Insult Over 'The Spear'

Siphumelele Zondi 

Ngoni people in Zambia continue with slaughering of bull with hands.
South Africa is going through a period of misunderstandings and it seems many black South Africans feel white South Africans refuse to understand their cultures, their way of life and how they, as Africans who have been oppressed, would think. 

These misunderstandings which are interpreted as insults by black people would often be seen when animal rights organisations protest should a prominent black person slaughter a cow in his home, which is part of many black people’s custom. Now they are seen in art as well. My dad used to say organisations like the SPCA need to understand that even meat found in a butchery comes from an animal that would have been slaughtered and buying a cow to do it yourself is far cheaper than buying the same quantity of meat in a butchery. 

The tradition of ukweshwana (first fruit) which took place in Nongoma in December last year attracted a lot of media attention because of the slaughtering of the bull with bare hands, something that has always been a part of Zulu people’s norm. The SPCA was protesting, saying bulls must be killed in a manner similar to that of the west. In 2009 the animal rights group had an unsuccessful bid in the Pietermaritzburg High Court to have the ceremony stopped. This would been seen as another compromise black people would have made. 

Chief Bhambatha hunted down for refusing to pay tax.
Already many black people feel they have compromised enough in South Africa as this started with having to share land, being forced to find jobs to pay tax which led to the Bhambatha uprising when Chief Bhambatha Zondi refused to pay to stay on the land of his ancestors in KwaZulu-Natal until he was hunted down and possibly beheaded as the Brits claimed to have done in the early 1900s. This was to force the Zulu nation, which had plenty of food as it herded livestock and farmed crops to work for white people and adopt a western way of life. Nomadic cultures had to stop as the continent was sliced up and borders created. During apartheid in South Africa many aspects of black life were disregarded and black people had to even learn either English or Afrikaans – languages spoken by their colonial masters.

Another compromise black people feel they now have to make is in what they interpret as the demeaning depiction of black leaders in art. Even in modern day South Africa, and other parts of Africa, the worst insult you can use is to refer to someone as private parts. I cannot write the various words of private parts as that would be an insult to the Africans reading this piece. It became evident in the media, especially social media, that South Africans view Brett Murray’s painting of President Jacob Zuma, The Spear, from two different perspectives. Many black people, including Zuma opponents, were insulted by The Spear while many white people seemed to find it amusing and had various justifications for it being part of a public art exhibition at the Goodman Gallery. Black people seemed to find Murray’s painting as the continuation of their insult in literature, art and media.

 The story of Africa, as told by white people, has pretty much been demeaning and a story of a people that are different from white Europeans on many levels. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about this in her TED Talks speech as she narrates her views on the danger of a single story. It goes back to first western literature of Africa when a black person would be depicted as barbaric and must be feared as they would not have similar features to white people. Adichie explains that John Locke, who sailed to West Africa in 1561, referred to "black Africans as beasts without houses, he writes they are also people without heads having their mouths and eyes in their breasts". 

That was the creation of a beast-like African that needed to be feared. It continued even in Disney cartoons as black people would have extra-large features that were something to be fascinated over and slightly feared, possibly laughed at, as they were different features to those of humans, white Europeans.

A black person has even been displayed as a museum feature in Europe or something to entertain locals as it happened with Sarah Baartman who was stolen from South Africa as she happened to have a larger than usual bum and she was then used as an example of what black Africans, that are different from humans (the white person), really looked like. Baartman, because of her features was an entertainment piece in Britain and France and was sold around the continent and lived a life of misery till her death. 

President Jacob Zuma on The Spear.
Some who have defended The Spear used the sculpture of David as an example of a nude white person that also exists in art. But David has soft features, the penis is not shown in an overbearing manner and the colours on the piece also do not spell danger. David was clearly done in good taste. The Spear on the other hand shows President Jacob Zuma, a black man, as a man who is clothed with only the penis hanging out, already something that is not normal in modern societies. The colours on the painting are a dark black and red which would spell danger in any situation. He is also looking up and seems like a dangerous figure that should be feared whereas the fully nude David is looking down and has a chiselled body that must be admired. 

The black man's penis, whether size or whether because it is dark, has also been something that has fascinated the west. The black penis spells danger for some and is not just a penis as a western white penis is. It is something many constantly discuss and that can be demeaning.

In order to understand art, such as Murray’s work, white people need to try and understand the psyche of a black man, who has been oppressed, forced to compromise, misrepresented and depicted in a manner that is insulting to any nation. The piece of art has once again shown that many white South Africans view life with western eyes which clearly shows that they don’t live with black people, but live around them. White South Africans don’t spend time in the townships to see how black people really live, they don’t attend their colleagues’ traditional events in order to get a clearer understanding of black cultures and they don’t even sit down to hold meaningful conversations about South African life and history in order for them to understand how the other thinks. Instead they expect black people to continue compromising and assimilate as they’ve always done. They also expect black people, who have been oppressed, “not to take things too seriously”. Until we truly live together then we will always view life from two totally different perspectives.

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