By Jon Herskovitz
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's ruling ANC went to court on Thursday seeking to remove from public display a painting of President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed, saying the work is symbolic of the lingering racial oppression of apartheid.
Proceedings were halted after a bizzare scene where Gcina Malindi, lawyer for the ANC, broke down in tears when a judge asked him how the court can halt viewing of an image widely distributed on the Internet.
The portrait shows Zuma in a pose mimicking Soviet-era posters of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, chest thrust out, arm raised to the side, coat tail flowing in the wind.
It has stirred one of the country's most heated political debates in years with a divide growing on racial lines over whether the image is symbolic of Zuma's failings or demeans the dignity of an African leader.
"From where I am sitting, that picture is racist. It is disrespectful. It is crude and it is rude," Gwede Mantashe, the secretary-general of the African National Congress told Reuters this week.
"The more black South Africans forgive and forget, the more they get a kick in the teeth," he said.
The former liberation movement ANC came to office 18 years ago when apartheid ended, pledging to end the economic inequalities that grew out of decades of white minority rule.
But its record has been spotty, with many in the ANC blaming white capitalists for not doing enough to transform Africa's largest economy, while a growing cross section blames the ANC for enriching itself and allies at the expense of taxpayers.
According to Statistics South Africa, 29 percent of blacks are unemployed compared with 5.9 percent of whites, while IHS Global Insight, an economic consultancy, estimates that whites have an average income nearly seven times that of blacks.
"The response by ANC follows a pattern seen in the past where criticism of the party by white people is said to be racist, instead of dealing with the issue," said Lucy Holborn, research manager at South African Institute of Race Relations.
The artist of the portrait, Brett Murray, is a white, anti-apartheid activist who once used his work to lampoon the rulers of the white-minority regime.
But he turned into an ANC enemy with the Zuma portrait that was part of an exhibit in Johannesburg gallery called "Hail to the Thief", which lampooned growing corruption under ANC rule.
Tension was heightened when the painting was defaced this week by a white man - peacefully taken into custody by security guards - and a black man who was head butted and body slammed by a guard. The defaced painting has been removed from public view.
Adding to the mix is that Zuma, a polygamist married six times and father of 21 children, has been a polarizing figure seen as having a colorful personal life but an ineffectual leader of the continent's top economic power.
"This is a constitutional democracy, not a monarchy. Respect is earned, and very few would say that the president has earned our respect given his lifestyle," political analyst Justice Malala wrote in an opinion piece for Britain's Guardian newspaper.
(Additional reporting by Cosmas Butunyi and Peroshnu Govender; editing by Ralph Boulton)