Is a Zuma statue the ultimate conceit or just for the birds?

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Should taxpayers’ money be spent flattering a failed president? Statues of public figures are supposed to honour great men and women. Building one to stroke a corrupt man’s vanity raises deep concern.

AMONG the astounding revelations in the debate on the recent State of the Nation address was the plan of North West provincial premier Supra Mahumapelo to build a 6-metre bronze statue of President Jacob Zuma in Groot Marico, which the Democratic Alliance says will cost R6m in public funds. Zuma was arrested in the area in 1963 by apartheid forces and held under the 90-day detention law.

Zuma’s critics have already dubbed it the “Nkandla of the North”, with reference to the lavish amounts of public money previously spent upgrading his private homestead, Nkandla, in Kwazulu-Natal. He was ultimately forced by the Constitutional Court and the public protector to pay back some R7m to the state for this.

It illustrates the dissonance in South African politics that public officials still want to splurge taxpayers’ money on a vanity project like this, when poverty-stricken local inhabitants can hardly feed themselves, the unemployment rate is at 27 per cent, and South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world.

What are political statues, aside from spots for pigeons to rest? They are emotive symbols people have fought and died 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, for example, successfully demanded tearing down arch-colonialist Cecil John Rhodes’ statue on the campus 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 4-metre statue of himself with 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 the figures of Nelson Mandela located in many far-flung places. One of the largest and 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 6-metre bronze statue of him 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’ sixteenth President, a founder of American democracy who ended slavery. At 8-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.

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 built 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 ever find its way beyond the pigeons in Groot Marico.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

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