JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Two men vandalized a portrait of South African President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed on Tuesday, intensifying a heated debate about the picture that has enraged the ruling African National Congress.
Television footage showed a white middle-aged man in a suit walking up to the portrait at a Johannesburg gallery and painting a red cross on president’s face and private parts.
A younger black man then smeared black paint over the picture while the first man was being taken into custody by security guards.
“I was stupefied and screamed for gallery security to apprehend the man,” said Iman Rapetti, a reporter for the local eNews channel who witnessed the incident.
The picture of Zuma, called “The Spear”, is a facsimile of a famous poster of communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, and is part of a wider exhibition addressing the perception of endemic corruption in Nelson Mandela’s former liberation movement.
In the red, black and yellow painting, the president is shown striking Lenin’s heroic stance, but with his penis hanging out of his trousers.
The artist, Brett Murray, is well-known in South Africa for his work criticizing the white-minority apartheid government that ended in 1994.
Zuma’s African National Congress party had already launched a legal bid to try to force the Goodman Gallery to remove the picture, which it described as crude and racist.
Minutes before the vandal attack, ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe told Reuters people had a right to criticize the government, but there were limits.
When you had an artist depicting the president’s genitals, he added, “you are not raising a discussion, you are insulting people.”
Zuma has been married six times and fathered 21 children.
The two men were taken into police custody. Police did not comment on what charges they might face.
Anton Harber, chairman of South Africa’s Freedom of Expression Institute last week called the ANC’s criticism of the picture “silly” and defended artists’ right to pose difficult, uncomfortable questions with their work.
Reporting by Peroshni Govender; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Andrew Heavens