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The Great Elephant Debacle

By February 16, 20105 Comments

Stupidity plummeted to new lows in Durban this week (with Sunday newspaper headlines that even satirists like Haibo might have been hard pressed to come up with) with the report that acclaimed artist and sculptor Andries Botha’s R1.5 million life-size elephant sculptures, made of recycled wood, metal and rubber, were ordered to be removed from a Durban free-way island, after passing ANC megalomaniacs found them reminiscent of the ”“shock horror”” same unwieldy mammals gracing the IFP logo.

Let’s get one thing straight. With three sculptures, costing as much as this and weighing over six tons each, this was no trivial commission. This was no beaded chandelier or beach-front curio City- managers commissioned to dangle in their reception areas.

Predictably, Durban City-Manager Mike Sutcliff (currently enjoying the more wintry climes of Vancouver, Canada, where he is attending the opening of the Winter Olympics) issued his usual diss to Durbanites for “over dramatising” the situation and claiming that Botha’s Elephants were not passed through the correct procedures and committees before going ahead.

At the cost of R1.5 million one would imagine (but hardly hope) that the that city leaders and planners had pontificated long and hard enough before blowing tax payer’s money on an art work that is now in danger of being reduced to a pile of rubble because it has irked certain “elephant-sized” insecurities within the ANC.

At the same time, can we blame those who commissioned the sculptures? Should we pity eThekwini Municipality head: international and government relations Mr Eric Applegreen?

Could Mr Applegreen have ever in his wildest, woolliest dreams imagine that such preposterous claims would be laid against the sculptures and, more bizarrely, that such claims would seriously ever come to threaten the fate of Botha’s art-works.

The Elephant it seems is no longer allowed to be considered just an Elephant. No longer can we see it as a quintessential African symbol of power, freedom and grace. Rather the ANC would like us to believe that the Elephant© was created exclusively by and for the Inkatha Freedom Party, conceived, not by some higher power, but rather by a loopy illustrator armed with copious amounts of Ganja and a pencil. 

The irony, of course, is that had the “cry-babies” who raised the great elephant-conspiracy- alarm shut their traps, few might have ever made the association.

A large majority of citizens would have simply viewed the works as a herd of life-sized elephants grazing in the inner-city as opposed to creatures sent to torment the ANC by towering over their SUV’s as they make their way to work each morning.

By drawing such attention to these elephants, party members have politicised and compromised a benign (not to mention bloody expensive) art work and severely humiliated themselves in the process. They have robbed Botha’s Ellies of their innocence and the city of Durban of yet another beautifying landmark.

All this means, that in the unlikely event of the sculptures been allowed to stay, they will now offer easy prey to vigilante vandals (urban poachers) who might make it their mission to desecrate them.

Should we expend our energies and activism on marching and ranting to save these sculptures when their real-life counter parts are in far more urgent need of our support and finances? Reward each absurd city decision with the flux and futility of our outrage? One certainly grows weary of keeping abreast with the weekly antics of Mr Sutcliffe and his circus of clowns.


The whole ordeal reminds me of an event that took place in down-town Durban a few years back. A sculpture of a Zulu hero was commissioned and installed on the opposite end of the park, where a sequestered colonial statue had previously stood for decades.

The unveiling of the statue was a comic debacle of sorts. Before the cement could settle on the podium, politicians were drawing “embarrassing” attention to the fact that the Zulu hero remained slightly shorter than that of the colonial statue on the opposite end of the park.

A few hundred thousand rand later and the said hero was removed and reinstalled on a far more prodigious pedestal so as to symbolically re-correct it’s juxtaposition against colonial oppressor.

While this is perhaps far mor justifiable that the elephant saga, what never fails to amaze me is how much cost, time and energy so often surrounds these cement and bronze tokens when far more pressing immediate concerns should be receiving the cities undivided attentions (and finances). These are, let’s be perfectly honest, these are largely historic tokens that your average pedestrian sees as nothing more than passing pigeon shitting pads. I would like to suggest we resolve to leave all animals out of our political wrangles. Next time anyone decides to start a political party, please opt for hands –in clenched fists or

exultant palms.

Go ahead, pepper your party flags with crucifix, sickle, star and limb but leave the long suffering brutes and beasts of the natural world out of it.

You really have to pity the creatures of this planet. Going about their day to day, trying to survive the next drought or lurking predator, doing everything in their limited powers to skip the endangered list and before they know it they find themselves appropriated and often reviled as the mascot to some nefarious political party or sports corporation!


The springbok, amongst others, has been forced to endure similar controversy over recent years as has the Protea? Now there’s a national symbol that I’m surprised has stood the test of time for as long as it has.

To my mind the Protea has always seemed a bulbous, prickly, fury, carnivorous monster of a flower. It constantly looks as if it’s about to leap out of its vase and sink its teeth into the first passersby’s jugular. Perhaps this is why the Apartheid government seemed so fond of it?

But I digress. Let’s resist turning “All things bright and beautiful” into ideological knob keirres to clock each other over the kops (heads) with.

© Neil Coppen


  • Steven Stead says:

    Go Neil! Honestly, if Gilbert and Sullivan, or Oscar Wilde were around today, they would be flawed by the plethora of material provided by contemporary South Africans!

  • Bruce Robertson says:

    Jesus wept, I can’t believe someone in council hasn’t come to their senses and just said “let’s get over this”.

  • janine zagel says:

    The elephants are in danger! See today’s Mercury article:
    Mammoth expense to build or destroy – The Mercury – 04/29/2010 04:04
    High-ranking eThekwini municipality officials have admitted that work on the controversial elephant sculpture had to stop after ANC councillors complained that the statues represented the ruling party’s arch-rival, the IFP, and was offensive to them.
    Deputy mayor Logie Naidoo told The Mercury yesterday that city manager Michael Sutcliffe had given instructions for the work to stop after receiving the complaints.
    “My understanding is that the intention was to showcase the Big Five. But the elephants seen by councillors while driving along Warwick Junction were very similar to the IFP logo. It may have been purely coincidental, but some councillors took offence to that,” said Naidoo.
    ANC chief whip Fawzia Peer said: “The entire ANC is against it. Obviously the ANC at large would have reservations because of the sculptures being the IFP logo.
    “Although it might have been unintentional, the depiction of the elephants may be viewed differently.”
    Should the council decide to demolish the elephants positioned near the Warwick Junction interchange, it could squander over R1.7 million to get rid of them.
    This is one of the recommendations contained in the long-awaited report compiled by the city’s engineering head, Adrian Peters.
    The report points out that demolishing the elephants would cost R200 000 in addition to the R1.3m which had already been spent on the project.
    This excludes the R4 500 a day that renowned sculptor Andries Botha and his team have been paid since work was stopped on February 8.
    This amount would have to come from the city’s capital budget.
    All opposition parties in the council said yesterday that they were not opposed to the sculptures and that the row caused by the ANC was childish and would cost ratepayers thousands of rands.
    Should the status quo be maintained, no additional costs would be incurred by the council except for covering the daily labour .
    Another option would be to be complete the elephants and incorporate sculptures of the remaining Big Five animals, which could cost the city a further R1.5m.
    The report says that the sculptures were funded by the national Transport Department as a 2010 priority project for the Warwick Junction’s regeneration.
    The city’s architecture department was then approached by Eric Apelgren, the head of international and government relations in the municipality, to attend a meeting with Botha to facilitate the positioning of sculptures in the city.
    According to Naidoo, the ANC’s main argument was that the project was not discussed by or approved by the council or any other committee in the city, while Botha said he had been given the go-ahead by a properly constituted committee.
    Patrick Pillay, a Minority Front councillor on the executive committee, asked who had given instructions for the work to stop.
    “The report doesn’t indicate whether that official should be surcharged because of the extra costs that may be incurred by ratepayers,” he said. DA caucus leader Tex Collins echoed Pillay’s sentiments.
    The decision taken yesterday was for the matter to be referred to the city’s legal team to advise on whether the report could be taken to the full council today, without the team’s recommendations being discussed by the executive committee.

  • Geri says:

    This is a neat sumamry. Thanks for sharing!

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