JOHANNESBURG // A lawyer for South Africa's president broke down in tears yesterday as he tried to convince three judges that the display of a portrait that depicts the president's genitals is unlawful.
The three South Gauteng High Court judges called a recess after the emotional display.
President Jacob Zuma is asking the High Court to issue an order that display of the now-defaced painting violates his constitutional right to dignity. The gallery and the artist counter that freedom of expression, also protected by the constitution, is at stake.
Two men had walked into the Goodman Gallery on Tuesday and defaced the portrait with paint, saying later they were acting to defend Mr Zuma. The gallery then removed the painting and closed indefinitely. Still, the case is being closely watched because it raises important constitutional issues in a new democracy.
Yesterday's hearing was broadcast live on national television. Leaders of the ruling African National Congress were present, as were several of the 70-year-old Mr Zuma's children, who have joined their father in the legal challenge. Outside the courthouse, hundreds of his supporters danced and sang.
As arguments began, the judges closely questioned Mr Zuma's lawyer Gcina Malindi on points of law, race, art and the limits of their ability to control publication on the internet.
Mr Malindi argued that the court should take into account not just the opinions of a "super class" of art experts, but how the painting was likely to be seen by the country's black majority, denied education under apartheid. Mr Malindi, who is black, said that many blacks still lived in poverty after the end of apartheid in 1994. He then sobbed. His colleagues rushed to put their arms around his shoulders.
ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu described Mr Malindi as a leading member of the ANC who had been tortured for his anti-apartheid activities.
"That's why this is emotional," Mr Mthembu said.
The painting by Brett Murray went on display at the Goodman, one of the country's leading galleries, early this month and came to the ANC's attention a week later, after local media reported it had been sold to an anonymous buyer.
"The portrayal has ridiculed and caused me humiliation and indignity," Mr Zuma contended in an affidavit filed Tuesday with the court.