The painting, the institution and the individual

by The Editor

FEATURE: The various responses to the painting of Jacob Zuma constantly confuse public office with the behaviour of the individual holding that office – the assumption is that because someone represents an institution they automatically get all the public respect associated with it. The latest is a statement by Zuma’s children. This is, of course, wrong. In fact, quite the opposite is true. In this short piece, I explain why.

The painting, the institution and the individual

By: Gareth van Onselen

20 May 2012

In a statement in response to Brett Murray’s painting ‘The Spear’, Jacob Zuma’s children have issued a statement which contains in it the following sentence:

“This is a clear and assertive indication that the artist and his defenders have no respect for the office of the presidency (the highest office in the land), nor do they have any respect for Jacob Zuma as a leader, father, husband or even a fellow human being.”

What a miraculous thing is ‘The Office of the President’. It cleanses all sins. The institution and the individual merge into a pure and virtuous union, indistinguishable, elevated above the norms and standards applicable to mortal men.

What nonsense. Those people who conveniently merge ‘The President’ (the individual) with ‘The Office of the President’ (the institution) are either unable to separate principle from practice or have a logical default, to which their analysis inevitably falls victim. If it is the former, and it is deliberate, then it serves as a safe hiding place, where the President’s actions are protected from proper scrutiny – the last refuge of the scoundrel. If is the latter, it’s nothing common sense cannot fix.

The reason people say one should respect ‘The Office of the President’, as opposed to just ‘The President’ is because ‘The Office of the President’ is defined by a set of principles and values to which ‘The President’ should aspire. Not vice versa. The President must aspire to embody those principles and values – hence the often asked question, ‘is this person fit to be President?’ Those principles and values are not automatically adopted by the President on taking office.

Brett Murray never once undermined or degraded ‘The Office of the President’ – quite the opposite, he pointed out, as a great many newspapers and commentators have done over the past four years, that Jacob Zuma does not embody the principles and values which that Office demands: that it is in fact the ANC and Jacob Zuma who are undermining the Office of the President, by behaving in a manner undeserving of it. The obvious consequence is this is that is perfectly possible to have respect for ‘The Office of the President’, the institution, but to have no respect for Jacob Zuma, the person. And that’s perfectly legitimate.

This confusion goes straight to the heart of a fundamental problem in South Africa. There is a wide-spread belief that public office automatically equals respect. Wrong. As long as someone holds public office, what that means is that their behaviour will automatically be gauged against the expectations associated with that office. And so, if anything, it will generate automatic scepticism, not respect. In South Africa we often take that scepticism too far; nevertheless, it remains a necessary check and balance on the abuse of power.


I have noticed in the various responses to the painting that no one has yet said the painting has actually resulted in less respect for the President. Many have said “it will”, “it seeks to” or “its effect is to”, but no one who has actually said, “As a result of this painting, I have less respect for Jacob Zuma”. Had this happened, it would be an interesting exercise to follow through the line of thinking involved, to its logical conclusion. In other words, if it did have that effect on someone, why would that be? Presumably, they would have looked at the painting, understood the argument it represented (that Zuma’s various sexual indiscretions have tainted his public standing), agreed with it and thus changed their opinion. So, actually, the problem is not the painting, but the argument it represents and the evidence on which it is based. That is what is or is not compelling, not the painting itself. Which is, of course, the very point of any metaphor.

Related Posts:
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The painting of President Zuma
The Jacob Zuma painting and the idea of respect
Some thoughts on the idea of respect

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