South African president Jacob Zuma and his African National Congress sought a court order to have a painting depicting his genitals removed from an art gallery - but two men took matters into their own hands by defacing the portrait with paint.
The case pits freedom of expression against the right to dignity, both guaranteed by South Africa's constitution.
The painting by Brett Murray went on display in a Johannesburg gallery this month and came to the African National Congress' attention a week later, after media reported that it had been sold.
Mr Zuma, who has a reputation for promiscuity, took the depiction very personally and compared himself somewhat ironically to a rape victim. Mr Zuma himself was put on trial for rape and acquitted in 2006.
"The portrayal has ridiculed and caused me humiliation and indignity," Mr Zuma said in an affidavit filed with the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg.
Presiding over the hearing in a court a few miles from the gallery, Judge Fayeeza Kathree-Setiloane said the full three-judge bench should hear the case because the national interest and constitutional issues were at stake. She said the hearing would recommence tomorrow.
Mr Zuma and the ANC sought to have the painting, 'The Spear', removed from the Goodman Gallery and to stop the newspaper City Press from displaying a photo of it on its website.
At about the time the hearing was under way, two men wielding cans of red and black paint walked up to the painting hanging on a gallery wall and took turns defacing it.
"Now it's completely and utterly destroyed," said Iman Rappetti, a reporter for a South African TV channel who happened to be on the scene.
Her channel showed a man in a tweed jacket painting a red X over the president's genital area and then his face. Next, a man in a hoodie used his hand to smear black paint over the president's face and down the painting.
The men were finally detained by gallery staff - the second man was head-butted and thrown to the ground before he was handcuffed - and police took them away.
The Goodman had said a day earlier that it was stepping up security and gallery visitors said yesterday their bags were searched as they went. After the vandalism the gallery was closed as a throng of reporters and onlookers gathered outside.
In a statement last night, the gallery said the painting had been moved to a safe and undisclosed place and that the gallery would remain closed indefinitely.
"The painting has generated a debate that clearly engages with important legal and constitutional issues," gallery owner Liza Essers said in the statement.
"This is over and above questions of political power, which formed part of its original dialogue.
"The extent of the rage has astonished me and upset me very much. I furthermore never imagined that this debate would transform into harmful physical action."
Artist Murray, through the gallery, has refused to comment.
The ANC said it "cannot condone any action that is not legal". The party then inserted race into the debate by noting that the first man accused of defacing the painting, who is white, was arrested without incident, while the second man, who is black, was shown in a tussle with gallery guards.
Police said the two unidentified men, aged 58 and 25, were expected to appear in a magistrates court tomorrow on a charge of malicious damage to property.
After the painting was defaced, a third man spray-painted the first three letters of the word "respect" on a wall near the gallery's front gate before he was taken away by police. He shouted that the gallery had shown the president disrespect.
At the court, more than 100 pro-Zuma protesters gathered outside. Donavan Cloete held a black, green and gold ANC flag and wore a T-shirt with the slogan: "President Zuma has a right to human dignity and privacy."
"The artist has got his own views on the political situation. He has a right to express himself," Mr Cloete said. "On the other hand, there's got to be a line drawn as to what constitutes satire and what constitutes insult."
But Sophia Morren, a ceramicist who was in the gallery with her daughter when the painting was defaced, said Mr Zuma had shown little respect for himself.
She referred to his six marriages - he currently has four wives, his 21 children, and his acknowledgment in 2010 that he fathered a child that year with a woman who was not among his wives.
"He's famous for all his women, all his children. I get exactly what the artist is saying," Ms Morren said. "Zuma shouldn't be complaining. Really."