Is a bronze statue the ultimate conceit or just for the birds?
Zuma’s critics have already dubbed it the “Nkandla of the North”. It illustrates the dissonance in South African politics that public officials still want to spend taxpayers’ money on something like this, when poverty-stricken local inhabitants can hardly feed themselves.
What are political statues, aside from spots for pigeons to rest on? They are emotive symbols people will fight and die for.
Ideally they should be unifying, but are often the opposite, being built by history’s victors, not the vanquished. The 2015 University of Cape Town student protests successfully demanded tearing down arch-colonialist Cecil John Rhodes’ statue as a symbol of oppression of Africans.
Dictators, of course, build statues to themselves to remind their people who is in charge. Last year Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe unveiled a four-metre statue of himself with an arm raised and fist clenched, while the country and its people suffered their worst economic crisis in years.
At their best, statues convey universal values like freedom and reconciliation, as expressed by those of Nelson Mandela in many far-flung places. One of the most elegant is at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, his arms outstretched, symbolising his embrace of the whole nation and one leg in front of the other indicating a country on the move.
It replaced a sculpture of former Prime Minister JB Hertzog who served from 1924-1939, which was relocated.
There was humour and controversy when the sculptors, André Prinsloo and Ruhan Janse van Vuuren, cast a tiny bronze rabbit inside Mandela’s ear to leave a trademark as a substitute for their signatures.
Sombre officials demanded its removal, but the sculptors were pardoned because “their intentions were honourable”. Mandela would probably have laughed at the incident.
Other Mandela statues stand in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, DC; facing Big Ben in London near Westminster Palace; and looking towards the Peace Palace in The Hague’s international district.
Last year the Palestinians inaugurated a six metre bronze statue of Mandela in Ramallah, donated by Johannesburg city, which angered some South African Jews. Former Mayor Parks Tau said Mandela would have been “proud”.
His image has also been commercialised – some say cheapened. Such as that of him dancing in Sandton’s upmarket shopping mall where tourists take pictures without grasping the depth of his struggle.
Statues to political ideals may be inspirational, like the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, commemorating the United States’ 16th president, a founder of American democracy who ended slavery. At eight metres tall, he stares across The Mall to the Capitol. In January, new US President Donald Trump made sure of being photographed in front of Lincoln before his inauguration, brazenly implying he was as great a man.
All countries have their heroes. Israeli sculptures celebrate Jewish and Zionist luminaries such as Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem near Netanya’s beachfront; Albert Einstein at Tel Aviv University; and the country’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion at Tel Aviv’s international airport.
There are also many sad statues to failed dreams like Russian communism. Prior to the Soviet Union’s breakup, figures of ideologue Vladimir Lenin were to be seen everywhere, one of the best-known in Moscow’s October Square. Karl Marx stands on Revolution Square at the Bolshoi Theatre.
What does Zuma offer compared to these towering figures, aside from the descent into corruption and the decline of his country? It is unlikely a Zuma statue will find its way beyond the pigeons in Groot Marico.
Read Geoff Sifrin’s regular columns on his blog sifrintakingissue.wordpress.com