THE African National Congress (ANC) welcomed the removal of a controversial painting of President Jacob Zuma from the website of City Press newspaper but still wanted an apology, ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said on Monday.

The party's legal action in relation to the display of the painting would also go ahead, he said.

"We appreciate what has been done," said Mr Mthembu after Ferial Haffajee, editor of City Press, said earlier on Monday that she had removed an image of artist Brett Murray's The Spear depicting Mr Zuma with his genitals exposed.

The painting itself was defaced last week when two people painted over it.

"We appreciate that at least Ferial is saying she can now understand the pain. All that we are saying to her is, can she apologise for the pain?" Mr Mthembu said. "Please apologise to the people of South Africa. This pain has been so deep-seated."

The apology, he said, should be made to the "people of South Africa, the ANC and everybody".

Mr Mthembu added: "If they made such an apology and removed the image, it would go a long way."

He said the ANC would continue with its legal action to have the painting and images of it banned, so that it would have clarity from the courts on what was acceptable in terms of the right to artistic expression and the right to human dignity.

"The court must assist us (in showing) how far those people can go who are in the artistic environment (to) violate those rights of those human beings," he said.

The court may change the remedy the ANC asked for, because it would be moot to order that the image be removed from City Press's website, he said.

Once Ms Haffajee apologised, said Mr Mthembu, the ANC would call off the boycott of City Press, called for by Minister of Higher Education and South African Communist Party secretary-general Blade Nzimande and ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe last week.

Ms Haffajee's actions so far, including an apology contained in a letter to Zuma's daughter Duduzile, were not enough, he added.

An extract of the letter to Ms Zuma read: "I understand that what is a work of satire to me is a portrait of pain to you. I understand the impact on your little brothers and sisters, who may face teasing at school. Playground cruelty leaves deep scars. And if they and your dad saw the work in our pages and it caused harm, then I apologise from the bottom of my heart."

Mr Mthembu said the apology had to be to the whole nation because everybody was affected.

David Makhura, ANC provincial secretary in Gauteng, on Monday called on all ANC members in the province to support a march, scheduled for Tuesday, to convey disapproval of the painting.

'FOUGHT AS MUCH AS WE COULD'

The decision by City Press to remove the image from its website followed more than a week of controversy over Mr Murray's reworking of a Russian propaganda poster of Marxist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, for his exhibition Hail to the Thief II at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.

"For any editor to respond to a threat to take down an article of journalism without putting up a fight is an unprincipled thing to do, so we've fought as much as we could. It doesn't serve City Press or South Africa to dig in our heels and put our fingers in our ears," Ms Haffajee wrote on Monday.

She said she did not want City Press's plans to be imperilled by being forced into an opposition role.

"My own identity is that of critical patriot. I am a great fan of my country, and that is how I want to edit. Besides, there are really important stories we lost sight of, like the continued investigation into Lt-Gen Richard Mdluli, unemployment and the infrastructure budget," she wrote. "That we are now a symbol of a nation's anger and rage is never the role of media in society. We are robust and independent, yes, but divisive and deaf, no."

She added she would be "silly" not to admit that fear played a part in her decision. Vendors were at risk when newspapers were burnt on Saturday, and a City Press journalist was evicted from a National Union of Mineworkers conference last week.

"We have not yet defined a Mzansi way of maintaining a leader's dignity while exercising a robust free speech, or reached an understanding that a leader embodies the nation, no matter what we may think of him or her," Ms Haffajee wrote. "Neither does it seem our leaders know that dignity and respect are earned qualities too."

She added that City Press removed the image "in the spirit of peacemaking - it is an olive branch. But the debate must not end here and we should all turn this into a learning moment, in the interest of all our freedoms."

With SAPA