BUSANI NGCAWENI: Zodwa Wabantu, The Spear, and nudity as a political tool

And so the Durban July has come and gone - at the least the main event. Let’s take a bet, only a handful of over 50 000 patrons knows the winning horse. One thing for sure: the entertainment curtain remains open in South Africa’s playground.

The weather was very democratic in Durban this weekend, allowing the nude and the tented to share spoils as showstoppers. Here we talk of Zodwa Wabantu, our national nudist, and Somgaga (Somizi Mhlongo) who wore what Twitterati has characterised as a green stretch tent. Maybe he was anticipating rain; in which case the bikini and fishnet clag Zodwa Wabantu might have taken refuge underneath his train.

But I digress. This is not a fashion review. It is a speculative account of why by sunset on Sunday, Zodwa Wabantu’s trending photos had been photoshopped to “cover her up” in various dress varieties.

Looking at the new trending pictures of Wabantu makes you think: why would people go to such lengths to “dress up” Wabantu when she trades as a nudist and is proud of it?

Suddenly my mind wondered to the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg where the infamous painting called The Spear was once displayed. ⁩

What’s the connection? Both the original trending picture of Wabantu and The Spear were modified or photographed, thus losing the essence of the original idea - to use nudity to make a particular statement.

Google and place side by side the two modified images of Wabantu in the “brown and gold dress”, and The Spear with airbrushed genitalia and face of what was meant to represent the former president of the republic.

The person who photoshopped "dressed” Wabantu and the two fellows who “defaced” The Spear might have had a common motif: to “conceal” what they considered to be an abomination and national embarrassment. And thus they intervened, in the national interest to dress up Wabantu and to conceal genitalia in The Spear.

But now there is a problem: the original imagery of Wabantu and The Spear obtains in the national consciousness, even if in a shadowy form (notice the shadow in Wabantu's dressed images? Behind the dress she remains naked!).

We submit that these are attributes of being and becoming in a sexist and racist post-colony.

Nudity can affirm us, like in the case of Wabantu. Through it we trend, get laid and get paid - even with dressed-up modern capitalist terms such as “influencers”. Wabantu is regarded as an “influencer”, which means she endorses products and/or services and charges premium for that based on her large number of social media followers.

Whereas others are embarrassed by her naked pictures and the vulgarity of her sexually suggestive stage performances, others see marketing opportunities. Wabantu owns her body and won’t allow body shaming to impoverish her. She has agency. She earns a living through this lifestyle.

Nudity is also weaponised, like in the case of The Spear painting. Through it, we get back at each other exploiting our most vulnerable form. It becomes vulgar, a supposedly "corrective" political tool.

That was the purpose of Brett Murray's The Spear. He intended to call out the former president for alleged abuses of power. Whereas Wabantu's nudes are calling out men who have money (a proxy for power) to come and have a good time.

In both cases, patriarchy is a common denominator - making nudity both a commodity and a weapon.

Those who hold power (of masculinity and money) in society dictate the rules of the nudity game and prevail. They are the cultural majority that dictates what we consume as a mass culture through electronic media and other platforms. A naked woman is commodified as a symbol of bliss. A naked president is caricatured as a marker of weakness.

By the way, did you see the social media memes with ladies offering to drop nudes if Bafana Bafana won on Saturday night?

Well, I suppose we were saved by Lorch. A loss would have left the Emperor naked at the hands of the
Pharaohs. Need I say that this would have come at the worse time for the country that hasn’t necessarily covered itself in glory in both the sports and the economy, thus dressing us with the dishonour of being the most unequal country in the world.

As we have noted elsewhere, the whole razzmatazz of Durban July is about fearfokol consumption, casual sex and flaunting. Otherwise, of what use would the nude selfies be without the core utility - narcissistic self-promotion that benefits the same monopoly capital we yearn for its apocalypse? What will The Spear have achieved had it not been for the premium of nudity as a political weapon?

Clearly, some in the circular republic are embarrassed by things nude, hence the acts of concealing, defacing and photoshopping of Zodwa Wabantu and The Spear - the most unlikely contrasts in the eyes of many.

As the cartoon character Stressed Eric once quipped after being fired from work and his clothes forcibly removed: “you can take my job away from me... strip me naked... but you will never take away my dignity”.

For him, dignity is beyond clothes.

Busani Ngcaweni is co-editor of 'We are No Longer at Ease: The Struggle for #FeesMustFall'. Follow him on Twitter: @busani_ngcaweni.