POLITICIANS cannot take advantage of people's emotions unless those feelings actually exist. Which is why the controversy over an artwork satirising President Jacob Zuma is not only an example of how distasteful our national debate can become.

There is nothing uplifting about the dispute. Besides the oft-made point that we face many more important issues, neither the politicians who rallied around Zuma nor the commentators who have criticised them raised the tone of the debate.

The politicians are surely milking the controversy in an attempt to strengthen Zuma's position in the African National Congress (ANC). They know that ANC members tend to rally around leaders who seem under attack from outside the movement.

The late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was one of the few supporters of former president Thabo Mbeki to win election to the ANC national executive committee in Polokwane - she won the sympathy vote because she was attacked in the press. Zuma's supporters hope that portraying the painting as an attack on all black people and, by implication, the ANC, will win him new sympathy and support in the ANC.

The controversy probably has strengthened Zuma's position, even if it is unlikely that it has done enough to affect the outcome of the battle for control of the ANC. If Brett Murray did not exist, Zuma's backers might have had to invent him. Politicians who are using the artwork are helped by its supporters, whose contempt for most of their fellow citizens threatens to give freedom a bad name. First prize for arrogance goes to the academic who told a radio audience he was glad the young communists were marching on a gallery because it would be the first time that they would be seen at an art exhibition. He was not the only one to imply that opposition to the painting was a symptom of poor breeding.

But, in the midst of this unappealing spectacle, something important is emerging that requires urgent attention. While the politicians' anger can be dismissed as convenient, the same cannot be said of the outrage of many black people who have reacted in anger but have nothing to gain politically.

As the painting has been debated, a consistent voice in the media, traditional and social, has been that of black people who see the work as yet another example of the contempt in which they believe they are held by white people. They complain that whites' values continue to dominate almost two decades after formal apartheid ended and that black people are still treated with the disdain that underpinned minority rule. They are not politicians and they will not benefit personally from the controversy. There is no reason to see their response as anything but a genuine expression of how they feel.

So the controversy has underlined again that many black people are angry because they feel whites still call the shots and still refuse to treat them as equals. Important sections of society have, for years, simply dismissed this as unreasonable and have refused to address it. The time has surely come to end this denial and to recognise that, if many black people feel that they remain victims of racial bias, we have a problem.

The problem is not that tired old point that blacks and whites see the world differently. The controversy has arguably shown the opposite. Many whites were upset by Murray's painting and some black voices denounced the politicians' protest as self-serving. It is, rather, that many black people feel the domination that apartheid reflected has not disappeared and that they are still not heard or respected. They feel the minority still wields power over them despite the constitution now recognising the rights of all.

The solution does not lie in telling artists what to paint - the anger runs far deeper than a reaction to an artwork: it is triggered when a public event gives people reason to believe they are victims of prejudice again.

It rests, rather, in recognising that the attitudes that made apartheid possible have not disappeared and that those who were powerful then still are - not in politics, perhaps, but in the economy, in the professions and in our cultural life. To name but one example - despite constant complaints about affirmative action, research shows that it is still harder for black graduates to get work than it is for their white counterparts.

While the row over the painting seems like a diversion, there is nothing trivial about a widespread sense that black people still do not enjoy the respect and access to opportunities due to citizens of a democracy. There is no more important issue than the charge that we are not overcoming our past.

At least some reaction to the painting is, therefore, a warning that tensions here still run deep and are prompted in part by a sense that minority rule is still with us. If the row over the painting gets us to face this, it will have done the country a huge favour.

. Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.