In light of the events this past week and a half – which saw nationwide protests under the #feesmustfall, #endoutsourcing and #NationalShutDown banners – there has been one image which has stuck in my mind. Following Nene’s presentation of his mid-term budget, the Speaker of Parliament announced that members ‘make use of the side entrances’ when they leave the chamber and that, ‘there are still people who are trying to gain access to the precinct, so we advise that members wait in their offices.’ At this point, DA leader Mmusi Maimane requested that Blade Nzimande and Jacob Zuma venture outside of parliament to address the students/protesters. This isn’t an endorsement of the DA, nor any other political party attempting to co-opt the #feesmustfall movement to their own ends. Nonetheless, Maimane’s request was reasonable and appropriate. Zuma and Nzimande’s expressions in response to this request (and Zuma’s in particular) form the image which has stuck with me:
You can see the incident in question at around the 36:18 mark in the video below:
In trying to locate what it is about Zuma’s facial expression which has rendered it so pervasive in my mind, I realised that it seems to recall Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X (c.1650) when retrospectively viewed through the lens of Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953). After seeing Bacon’s subversive reinterpretation of Velázquez’s original portrait, it is almost impossible to consider Pope Innocent X’s expression as anything other than disdainful, repressed anguish; such is the political power of quotation in art. All connotations to dignified papal regality are shattered as the spectre of Bacon’s howling Pope asserts its presence beneath the Velázquez’s restrained visage.There are multiple interpretations of Bacon’s painting – many of them revolving around a ‘reverse Oedipal’ relationship between the gay Francis Bacon and his violently homophobic father – but I would like to focus on the idea of existential crisis put forward in Rina Arya’s comparative analysis of the two paintings. Arya notes that Velázquez’s portrait was painted at the peak of the Counter-Reformation (when papal power was at its highest) and that he was thus able to document the Pope at the pinnacle of his power just before the papacy began to lose political influence. Bacon’s painting thus confronts the Pope with the Nietzschean death of God that the subsequent rise of secularism and modernity brought about. ‘We witness the death of the symbol of the Pope who screams as his public persona falls apart and his corporeality is revealed.’
This brings us back to President Zuma. I don’t find it tenuous to assert that the former’s facial expression in that particular moment resembles the repression and the complete inability to express internal rage which I have attributed to the post-Bacon Pope. There is an undeniable sense of irritation with the continual annoyance of opposition parties’ insistence that being President somehow comes with constitutional accountability and a responsibility to serve the people of South Africa.
More than that though, as Msimang suggests, is the stark realisation that his failure as a leader is so great that he is unable even to acknowledge the students directly and to listen to (let alone understand) their very legitimate demands. After his brief announcement on Friday October 24 that there would be no fee increases in 2016, this remains true as he chose not to address the students directly and broadcast his announcement rather than speaking to them in person. He also reduced the protesters’ vast demands (including those of insourcing) down to a meagre, impractical resolution which failed to address almost all of the circumstances they were protesting.
In a sense, both Zuma and Velázquez’s Pope encounter an existential crisis due to their infirmity of purpose. The Counter-Reformation Pope’s validation crumbles when the source of his authority is revealed as an empty symbol. For President Zuma, any lingering illusion of courage and leadership is momentarily shattered when he is confronted with the reality of his own failure; (internally) screaming in fear. Artists such as Ayanda Mabulu, Brett Murray, Jonathan Shapiro and Stuart Bird have been decrying the emperor’s lack of clothes for years. In those five seconds of parliamentary livestream – and in his decision to flee rather than step up – the image of the screaming ‘Bacon-Zuma’ was plain to see.
Blade Nzimande seems to have been let off the hook here. That’s because we don’t need to speculate what went through his head in those moments, he happily declared the number of fucks he gives about those he is supposed to be looking out for: