Violent Modernity: Gender, Race and Bodies in Contemporary South African Politics
In May 2012, an artwork on President Zuma caused a public storm about the relationship between freedom of expression, dignity and the rights of the artist. In subsequent political debates on Brett Murray's Spear, art and politics met in a heightened clash that embodied all the tensions of a country moving imperfectly towards an imagined state of democracy. In that clash, what was said mattered no less than who said it, and the significance of the debate related to the heart of how democracy ought to be understood. This article argues that the question of where gender equality might feature in South African democracy was less widely debated. More specifically, in the angst that characterized responses to the painting and responses to the responses, considerable anxiety was expressed about two aspects of democracy. The first related to whether or not the liberal political norms of the South African constitution were in danger of being eroded by a socially conservative populist movement. The second related to the sense of citizenship: who belongs in South Africa, who has the right to criticize and who is an authentic citizen. There was little attention to a discussion of what is entailed in the making of the postcolonial subject and especially in the way in which gender complicates modern democracy. The article argues for considering race and gender as inextricable. It suggests that the limits of democracy are most clearly visible when bodies become present in the public sphere.