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Sunday, February 28, 2010


The following is an article by Peter Machen titled “Is the return of Art under political siege again?” (courtesy of SA Art Times,

The fate of the elephants constructed by sculptor Andries Botha and his team of workers on a freeway island in Durban remains unknown at the time of writing, although clouded with rumour. It has now been widely reported that Botha's team was told to cease construction several weeks ago after a man in a black SUV stopped on the freeway, where the sculptures were being built from stone and steel gabions, and ordered that the work be halted - apparently because the elephants are a symbol of the IFP and Durban is an ANC city.

That man was identified by the workers as John Mchunu, regional chairperson of the ANC, although Mchunu has reportedly denied this. As yet, there has been no formal response from the City or the ANC, other than the suggestion that the elephants were not properly ratified by City Council. When contacted for this story, City Manager Michael Sutcliffe said "We really have nothing to say at this stage". However, in an informal conversation with Durban businessman John Charter, who is a supporter of Botha's Human Elephant Foundation, Sutcliffe reportedly said, "We're going to take them down immediately. It's not your fault. It's just not politically expedient. Don't talk about it". It seems, however, that Sutcliffe is caught up in a political web that is not of the City's making.

Botha has already been paid a half-payment of R750,000 for the elephants and expects the city to pay up the other half (through Rumdel Cape, the contracting company assigned to the Warwick Avenue redevelopment, of which the sculptures form a part), regardless of whether they be allowed to stay in their current location. Rumours abound as to the elephants' fate. Some have suggested that the three elephants, which Botha designed so that they seem to be emerging from the earth, might be joined by additional elephants or other members of the so-called big five.

Botha points out that the elephant is probably the strongest symbol of Africa and that it is intricately woven into local history and culture. For starters, the elephant is also the symbol of the Msunduzi Municipality in Pietermaritzburg and appears on the twenty rand note. While the debacle has gathered a smattering of national press, including a column by Ben Trovato in the Sunday Times, it's gone viral on the web, where it's been discussed on blogs and webforums and even pitched up in the form of a 'Save the Elephants' Facebook page.

In a narrative that is awash with irony, the most ironic element of the story is that Botha erected the elephants on roughly the same spot where the last free-roaming elephant in Durban was purportedly shot. Now there is the strong possibility that these elephant simulacra will also be destroyed or at least removed from the public realm.

What is certain is that the breadth of meaning of the elephant as a symbol vastly outweighs any political association with the IFP. The city - or national government, apparently the issue was to be discussed at a national ANC caucus - now has two choices: to get rid of the elephants or allow them to stay. Either way, there will be egg on their faces. But the egg will be minimised if they back down. (A third option would be to move the elephant to somewhere less public, which would incur considerable expense and more egg).

There's one more aspect to the story which has received very little attention. This is not the first time that the city has comissioned public artworks from Andries Botha which have yet to make their way into the public space for one reason or another. The artist has previously been comissioned by the city to produce a series of struggle statues, including likenesses of John Dube, Nelson Mandela and Dorothy Nyembe, which were to be installed in the historically important area of Ohlanga. Additionally, the city also comissioned a sculpture of Isaiah Shembe from Botha several years ago. The struggle heroes are still sitting in the city's architecture department while the sculpture of Shembe has not been installed because of factional rivalry in the Shembe community and also because to do so would apparently be idolatrous to those of the Shembe faith. It seems that public art in eThekwini is bedevilled with difficulties, all the more so if your name happens to be Andries Botha. - Peter Machen (courtesy of SA Art Times,