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South Africa to Debate Social Cohesion After Painting Furor

South African President Jacob Zuma said a summit on social cohesion will be convened in July to examine ways to bridge divisions over race, ethnicity and culture 18 years after the end of white segregationist rule.

South Africa still has “challenges of poverty, unemployment, landlessness and race, class and gender,” Zuma told Parliament in Cape Town today. “These continue to be defining features of how society relates and they can be a cause of deep pain, disappointment and frustration.”

His announcement follows a national uproar over the Goodman Gallery’s display of a painting depicting the president with his genitals exposed that was published by the City Press newspaper. The ruling African National Congress denounced the image, which was defaced last week by two men who smeared paint over it, as racially insensitive and an affront to Zuma’s dignity.

The party held a protest march at the gallery in northern Johannesburg yesterday and called for a boycott of City Press. It also filed a court case to force the gallery and the newspaper to stop displaying the image. The boycott and lawsuit were abandoned after the newspaper and the gallery bowed to the party’s demands.

Zuma didn’t directly refer to Brett Murray’s painting, “The Spear,” in today’s address. It depicts a man resembling the president in a pose similar to the Soviet-era propaganda poster of Vladimir Lenin with his genitals hanging out of his unzipped pants.

“The president’s attention has been diverted from his duties,” Lindiwe Mazibuko, the parliamentary leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance, told Parliament. “Energy spent on organizing a march to an art gallery and a legal challenge to a work of satire has distracted from the serious work of government. Representatives of the ANC and some of its ministers are attempting to close down the space for freedom of expression through bullying and intimidation.”

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