By Jon Herskovitz
JOHANNESBURG, July 6 (Reuters) - South Africa's ruling ANC picked a fight on Friday with one of the country's most celebrated political cartoonists over the portrayal of President Jacob Zuma as an erect penis.
The cartoon by Jonathan Shapiro, known as Zapiro, in the influential Mail and Guardian weekly also refers to Zuma as "a dick" and ridicules his attempts at racial reconciliation in the apartheid-scarred country.
The incident comes weeks after the African National Congress (ANC) held street rallies and went to court seeking the removal from public display of a painting called "The Spear".
The painting in a Johannesburg gallery showed Zuma in a Leninist pose with his chest thrust out and penis exposed. It was removed after it was defaced.
"We are not alone as the ANC in condemning this act of insult to our President by Zapiro and the Mail and Guardian," the party said in a statement. "All South Africans share our disgust."
It has called on Zapiro, winner of numerous awards, and the newspaper to apologise. Zuma is suing Zapiro for defamation for separate cartoons published in 2006 and 2008.
The controversy over The Spear and the cartoon have touched off some of the most heated social debates in years, exposing the racial rifts that lie just beneath the surface in Nelson Mandela's self-styled "Rainbow Nation".
The ANC, which has ruled since apartheid ended in 1994, has called the images racist and intended to tarnish Zuma's dignity in a manner similar to the white-minority apartheid regime's dehumanisation of South Africa's black majority.
Zuma's critics say the images are reflective of his colourful personal life - as a practicing Zulu polygamist he has four wives and more than 20 children, but has also been caught having extra-marital affairs.
Mail and Guardian editor Nicholas Dawes defended publication of the cartoon, but conceded that the image might have gone too far.
"It's quite possible that it is not a great cartoon," he told national broadcaster Talk Radio 702.
"It was an attempt to make a rude comment about the President. It was intended to provoke." (Editing by Ed Cropley)