JOHANNESBURG — A handwritten sign that said "whites hate blacks" and was carried by one of more than 2,000 protesters in Johannesburg on Tuesday shows that a fierce national debate over a painting depicting the president's genitals is about more than art and the constitution.
Mapule Kgomo, a black woman from the outskirts of Johannesburg who wrote the sign, said she drew her conclusion about fellow South Africans who are white after seeing the painting, titled "The Spear," that a white South African had made of President Jacob Zuma, who is black.
"I hate whites passionately after that painting," she added. "I'm so hurt."
On Tuesday, a spokesman for the Goodman Gallery said it has agreed to remove images of the painting from its website. The painting itself had already been removed from the gallery after it was defaced last week.
But the passionate feelings about the painting don't seem ready to subside. If anything, the protests and comment have been amplified because much of it is taking place on social network sites.
The debate is part of an ongoing discussion in this young democracy about whether white South Africans are insensitive and to what extent black South Africans still feel they are treated as second class citizens, even though the country is governed by Zuma's African National Congress. The ANC led the fight against apartheid before becoming a political party.
Zuma has asked the High Court to rule that his constitutional right to dignity was violated when the gallery put the painting on display earlier this month. The gallery and artist Brett Murray argue they are defending the constitutional right to freedom of expression.
"I am not a racist," Murray said in an affidavit filed in the court case, which is still under way. "I do not produce art with an intention to hurt, humiliate or insult."
Liza Essers, owner of the Goodman Gallery, says she regrets "the divisiveness that the exhibition has caused.
"It was never my intention to cause hurt to any person," Essers said in a statement last week.
The issue is not black and white.
Black artists filed affidavits supporting Murray. And a white man and a black man entered the gallery to deface the painting, saying they were acting independently of each other and wanted to defend Zuma. The two were arrested and face trespassing charges.
Murray said in his court affidavit that the intention of his Zuma painting, part of a show that criticized the ANC, was to express a sense of betrayal that some post-apartheid leaders were greedy or corrupt. He also said that details of Zuma's sex life had become part of the public debate in South Africa.
Zuma, 70, has been married six times – he currently has four wives, as his Zulu culture allows. He has 21 children, and acknowledged in 2010 that he fathered a child that year with a woman who was not among his wives.
Tuesday's protest wound about a kilometer (half mile) from a usually quiet park in an upscale Johannesburg neighborhood to a corner just south of the gallery. Along the way, black women in maid's aprons and black men in gardener's overalls stood on the balconies of homes in the largely white residential neighborhood to cheer on the marchers.
The gallery had replaced pieces from Murray's show in its windows with signs reading: "The Goodman Gallery respects your right to protest."
ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu addressed the crowd outside the gallery, saying, "We refuse to be painted as inferior citizens of this country."
South African Communist Party leader Blade Nzimande, a Zuma ally, compared the case to a hate speech suit a group that lobbies for white South Africans brought against an ANC leader who had insisted on continuing to sing a song from the apartheid era that calls for killing whites. The judge in that case banned the song.
Nzimande said some have asked why Zuma supporters went to court, as the white group did, instead of trying to speak to the artist and the gallery to find a solution.
"You can't have a dialogue with a person who is actually insulting you," Nzimande said.
Kgomo, the protester, said that despite the division vividly on display Tuesday, a resolution was possible.
"If they apologize to our president, then it will be enough for us," she said.