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Art in the Open ‘May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears’

The Nelson Mandela statue in Pretoria epitomises the early, but yet to be fulfilled, promise of an all-embracing prosperous ‘Rainbow Nation’

NELSON MANDELA died eight years ago on December 5 2013. This statue of him was unveiled on December 16 — the official Day of Reconciliation — thus ending the 10-day-long period of mourning.

The nine-metre-high bronze figure is the tallest figurative statue of Nelson Mandela and weighs approximately 3.5 tonnes. Its outstretched arms span eight metres and are uncannily reminiscent of Paul Landowski’s 1930 art deco Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro from the Corcovado mountain peak.

The statue, which emanates warmth, humanity and welcome, was cast in 147 separate pieces at four different foundries before being assembled in Cape Town.

It has been placed on Union Buildings grounds in Pretoria, the executive capital of South Africa, where it replaced the statue of the racial segregationist JBM Hertzog, who was South African prime minister from 1924-1939.

At the inauguration then president Jacob Zuma said: “In all the statues of Madiba [Mandela], he raises his fist. This one is different, he is stretching out his hands. He is embracing the whole nation.”

The artists, Andre Prinsloo and Ruhan Janse van Vuuren, who belong to the white Afrikaner minority, were chosen for their aptitude as much as in an effort to keep with Mandela's principle of reconciliation.

However, the following January (2014) it was discovered that a tiny rabbit was placed in the statue’s right ear (see picture).

Prinsloo and van Vuuren offered a moronic excuse about the “hare” being synonymous with “fast” in Afrikaans, which reflected the haste with which the sculpture was completed.

This only added insult to injury and prompted a sharp response from Dali Tambo — son of anti-apartheid hero Oliver Tambo — who was a member of the commissioning group.

“That statue isn't just a statue of a man, it’s the statue of a struggle, and one of the most noble in human history,” Tambo said, adding that “it’s belittling, in my opinion, if you then take it in a jocular way and start adding rabbits in the ear.”

To further emphasise his point Tambo said it was akin to depicting Barack Obama with a mouse peering out in his nose.

Prinsloo and van Vuuren apologised but it begs the question why sculptors like Pitika Ntuli appear not to have had a greater involvement?

That said and the offensive and disrespectful “hare” apart, the sculpture has a formal integrity, which derives from Prinsloo’s fascination with and study of Auguste Rodin.

It does avoid the vacuity and mannerisms of contemporary realism by keeping the articulation of the main body of the figure minimalist with hardly any surface textures.

Mandela, wearing a traditional Shweshwe jacket, is caught in midstep and it is just his face — of reasonable likeness — and palms of the hands that define the emotional load.

South Africa’s Day of Reconciliation, December 16, is a public holiday which marks the end of apartheid in South Africa. “Former President Mandela is associated with the promotion of reconciliation which is why the day was chosen for the unveiling,” said a government spokesperson at the time.

Nevertheless, the date of December 16 has a dual meaning in South Africa. One for the colonialist whites who on that day celebrated, during apartheid, the Day of Covenant — a remembrance of Afrikaners’ victory over a Zulu army in the 1838 Battle of Blood (Nkome) River in KwaZulu-Natal.

While for progressive South Africans it is the date when uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) — the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), co-founded by Nelson Mandela — was launched in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre in 1961, a move that would precipitate the beginning of the end of apartheid and the release of political prisoners including Mandela on February 11 1990.

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