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Two Nude Leaders: Very Different Reactions

This week has provided for an opportunity to compare Canada and South Africa again.  This time, it is over nude paintings of both respective leaders.  Yes, both Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada and President Jacob Zuma of South Africa have recently been depicted in the buff.  Both in a rather unflattering way.

Now when contrasting to the two nude depictions, I am not seeking to “compare” how well each painting is hung (pun intended).  Rather – to speak about the reactions towards each.

In Canada, the painting of Stephen Harper has been met with some criticism but mostly humour.  Indeed the painting, seen here and censored for the rather sensitive Canadian public, is rather funny.  But it does make a real political comment.

Image courtesy of Canoe Media (http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Canada/2012/05/18/19776471.html)

It depicts the Prime Minister lounging and all around him people are fawning. It really speaks to the current politic environment in Canada where all crowd around the man with incredible political power and who inspires fear. So much fear, it appears, that no one in the painting appears fazed that he is nude…just grateful to be in his presence.  I digress. It is a form of political commentary that has inspired debate and discussion about Harper as PM and the appropriateness of this depiction.  The debate has been rather polite, if not gentile, when considering the issue (Harper’s leadership style) versus the fact that he is a weenie (sorry, will stop now).  But the debate has been between commentators and NOT really involved much intervention from politico’s acting on behalf of the Conservative Party of Canada .

In contrast, in South Africa, a nude painting of President Jacob Zuma was also recently released. Actually, it was more a painting of the President with his genitals hanging out of his trousers. The painting has received a great deal of attention…actually it has been down right controversial as some believe it promotes racist stereotypes of black African men and their “supposed” unbridled sexuality. So controversial that it was just defaced today (May 22, 2012).  Seen here courtesy of the Mail & Guardian (http://mg.co.za/article/2012-05-22-now-rated-x-controversial-zuma-artwork-defaced)


However, I think the racist argument is misplaced.  First, Zuma is President of the South Africa and takes on a different persona to that of being just a black African man. Second, the man has a reputation of being promiscuous – he is routinely criticized for his sexual practices and many in South Africa struggle with his polygamous family life that includes 19+ children and two more fiances waiting in the wings.  Such difficulty in accepting Zuma’s private life is hardly racist and should be open to political debate and criticism. On top of this – his personal approach to governance leaves South Africa divided, inside and out of his political party.

This is why it makes it all the more shocking and concerning that the ruling ANC has gone so far as to submit a petition to the High Court in South Africa to have the painting taken down.  To censor this piece of political commentary of a controversial President.   The ANC in justifying its approach notes that the painting  demeans the President, violates his privacy and has called on ANC supporters to protest against the gallery.

And here the difference between Canada and South Africa lies.  The ANC and its vociferous reaction has seen protests taking place outside of the gallery.  Reports in the Mail & Guardian have noted that some are holding up placards saying “Say no to artistic expression!”. The placard slogans are apparently supported by the ANC through the appearance of their logo.

This challenge to the freedom of artistic expression was only solidified in the defacing of the painting.  What is particularly concerning about all of this is just how it really smacks of Cultural Revolution type rhetoric and action ala China and implies that perhaps the democratic traditions of the ANC Government are not so pure as we all thought.  Indeed – the notion that the painting violates Zuma’s personal privacy is spurious and legal hogwash.  How can a imagined image of a persons genitals violate their privacy?

It is an interesting contrast between the two countries – both have had their political leaders depicted nude in the last couple of weeks but the reaction has been completely different and taken on differing undertones.  Canada – there has been some righteous indignation – but even the Prime Minister’s Communications Advisor found it funny, noting on Twitter that we all know the Prime Minister is a cat person (referring to the dog painted next to him).   The Conservative Party of Canada hasn’t made a peep.

In South Africa, the painting has inspired a serious outcry against the artist and the work by the ANC.  It has taken on the tone of restricting artistic expression, free speech and suggests political criticism is not welcome.  The ANC’s official legal action, whilst permitted under law, also raises questions about its democratic credentials and priorities.  Is the ANC going to react this way every time it disagrees with a political statement?  Indeed, using up financial resources and time on this issue seems rather befuddling when there are over 25 million people living in poverty in South Africa. It also seems befuddling given South Africa’s commitment to free speech and human rights.

Today’s defacing, the public and legal protests beg some questions.  First, what is the role and intention of the governing party – the ANC – in leading the charge on this issue?  Second, is the space and are the boundaries for political criticism in a democratic South Africa changing?   I think so.


CAN-SA Relations – Moving Forward

The Canada-South Africa Colloquium was a resounding success with over 30 official participants and an additional 40 attendees. In all the two days came together nicely.  Indeed, I was particularly pleased with how cohesive the panels were despite the diversity in perspectives and backgrounds that were represented.  I really have to thank the presenters and chairs for the quality work that they brought to the event.  It would not have been possible without them.

The two days explored a number of different topics related to the historical relationship between the countries, trade and investment, cooperation in such activities as the Kimberly Process, South African Diaspora in Canada,  South African representation in the Canadian media, the development assistance provided by CIDA, IDRC and other non-governmental organizations, and the implications of the emergence of BRICS and South Africa’s role in that.

It is clear that the vociferousness and consistency of Canada’s opposition to the Apartheid regime can be contested through examining the timing and commercial engagement with Apartheid South Africa.  However, the work undertaken in the immediate decline of the undemocratic and racist regime, and in the immediate context after its demise, was exemplary and created much goodwill between the two countries.  This is something that Canadians should be proud of and feel good about.  Likewise, this should act as an excellent launching pad for building closer political and economic ties with Africa’s most stable and prosperous country.

Alas, despite the best efforts of Canadian representatives on the ground in Pretoria, this has simply not happened.  A combination of a lack of focus towards Africa, an inability on the part of the current Harper Government to realize the changing tides of the international system, and the insignificance of Canada in a growing South Africa from an economic perspective results in a disconnected, uneasy and fraught relationship between the two countries.

On the South African side, the focus on its BRICS partnership, its commitment to the African Renaissance and its own internal politics with the ANC does result in foreign policy focus being placed elsewhere.

One thing that was clear from all involved – including Canada’s High Commissioner and the Chief Director for North America at South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation – is that this must change.

Indeed – it seems like the will is there, the desire exists…but will the political leadership take the chance?  We only hope.

A Relationship Worth Invigorating

As the Official Bilateral Consultations between South Africa and Canada get underway today, the opportunity to invigorate an often neglected relationship is upon us. The reasons for doing so are based in history and strategic necessity.

The South Africa-Canada relationship is one that is based on a rich history and many common values.  Canada was active in supporting the anti-Apartheid struggle providing many activists with refuge during the darkest days of this undemocratic regime. Canada took a strong stand in support of South Africa within the Commonwealth when then Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, publicly chastised the UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, for maintaining commercial ties with the National Party government and referring to the African National Congress (ANC) as a terrorist organisation.

In a post-Apartheid South Africa, Canada was a supportive partner offering over R1.4 billion in direct development assistance.  The South African Constitution takes much from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – documents that embody common progressive values of human rights, multiculturalism and equality.  Canadian and South African civil servants continue to share much technical information and work closely together to build effective government institutions.

Canadians admire South Africa’s transition and recognize it as a responsible international actor. In 2001, Canada bestowed honorary citizenship on Nelson Mandela– an honour only given to four other people in Canadian history.  In 2003, President Mbeki went to Ottawa and signed a Joint Declaration of Intent aimed at strengthening bilateral relations and cooperation.  And in 2006, the Canadian Governor General made a state visit to reaffirm ties.

But behind all this goodwill, South Africa and Canada often find each other on opposing sides of important problems.  The conflicts in Libya, Syria, Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan and the International Criminal Court arrest warrant for President Bashir of Sudan, and the political crisis in Zimbabwe have resulted in the relationship becoming fraught and uneasy.  This combined with an apparent decreasing engagement by Canada in South Africa, leaves many within each corridor of government wondering if we are really allies.

When such fundamental questions are asked, smaller points of contention are exacerbated and mistrust reinforced.  For example, the long standing, but rarely applied, Canadian entry visa ban on a number of leading ANC members still causes unnecessary delays for members of the Government to visit Canada. As well, Canada’s refugee system and its application to Brendan Huntely, the white South African who claimed his life was at risk if he was deported, has caused embarrassment for both sides.

Vice versa, lumping Canada in with the anti western, anti colonial rhetoric from the Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Ebrahim Ebrahim raises queries from a country who’s own history as a colony would suggest more space for commonality than difference with South Africa.  Or seemingly rewarding the former High Commissioner to Canada, Mohau Pheko with a plumb post in Japan after she swept aside diplomatic tradition to criticize the Government of Canada publicly as opposed to through traditional channels, would seem to suggest that Canada is not respected by Pretoria.

All these ‘little’ irritations, which normally could be brushed off, in this case feed into a larger narrative in Pretoria and Ottawa that these governments just do not understand each other anymore.  However, all is not lost and these two countries can invigorate the relationship.

Indeed, the relationship is worth invigorating as it maintains both importance and strategic value.

Important because of the common values that Canada and the South Africa share.  Strategic because both bring unique opportunities to the table.  South Africa as a BRICS country is an emerging power that is reshaping and redefining the international system.  South Africa is also the gateway to Africa with a stable investment and business environment, providing real opportunities for Canadian businesses.

Canada as a result of its close relationship with G8 countries, particularly, the US could be of strategic import to South Africa.  When bilateral diplomacy fails, countries like Canada can act as an important interlocutor.  As well, Canada also maintains significant financial capital that could be put to use in South Africa.

In an international system that is becoming increasingly polarized and competitive, common values and shared histories take on renewed importance.  South Africa and Canada have much from which to build and it would be a waste not to take advantage of this.

Canada-South Africa Relations

One of my areas of interest pertains to Canadian engagement in the world.  It is at once an interest in Canadian Foreign Policy but also in a comparative light where I look to relationships that Canada maintains.  Since moving to South Africa in 2009 to take up an academic post at the University of the Witwatersrand, I have become particularly interested in the bilateral relationship between the two countries.  In this vein I have decided to organize a Colloquium on Canada-South Africa Relations, taking place May 14-15, 2012.  Check out the following Colloquium Poster  & Colloquium Programme

Welcome to my Blog

Welcome to my blog…this is a new endeavour for me and I hope to post regularly.  Whilst I will mainly write on matters pertaining to my chosen vocation – international relations – I will also dabble a little in pedagogy – an area of particular interest to me and offer thoughts based on my travels.

Thanks for checking me out.


Lecturer in International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. International Politics Junkie and Canadian living in South Africa