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Monday Feb 11, 2013

Durban's elephants triumphant

After a bitter three-year battle, Durban's elephants have been saved, but at what cost to the ratepayer? Vivian Attwood reports

This week thousands of supporters hailed the victory of artist Andries Botha, who took on eThekwini City Council after it reneged on its contractual agreement with him to build a herd of sculpted elephants in Warwick Triangle.

Claiming it as a "pyrrhic victory" in view of the fact the council had still not acknowledged it acted unlawfully in stopping work on the project, Botha said that the cost of the installation would "inevitably be far higher than if it had been completed as scheduled in mid-2010".

The project was unanimously supported by all city roleplayers, and a budget of R1.3 million was set aside for it in the KZN provincial budget. However, when the late John Mchunu, former IFP stalwart turned ANC power broker, ordered a halt to construction, 20 percent, or R260 000, was still outstanding. This would have represented the profit margin to be shared between Botha and his crew. The initial R1 040 000 paid out only covered materials and labour.

Even excluding inflation of materials, which would, said Botha, have been "significant" in the intervening years, replacing the three damaged elephants would bring the tally to R2.6m.

And that's before you add the cost of the free-standing fourth elephant which is to be added to the group. It would, said Botha, be the largest of the pachyderms, and would probably face oncoming traffic.

Naturally, the taxpayer will have footed the bill for the council's legal representation, so the costs could be significantly elevated in the final tally. If Botha had not been represented pro bono, costs will have run well into five figures.

Why did a bunch of councillors think they could hijack a project that was being funded by the taxpayers of KZN?

"I think a combined madness came over them," said Botha. "It was erroneous of then City Manager Mike Sutcliffe and the council to pass an illegal vote to change the contract. I can only explain their cavalier behaviour as an aberrant collective craziness."

Botha remains adamant that he did not "dream up" the elephants without council approval. "I was headhunted for the project, at very short notice, and when I presented the idea of the elephants as a metaphor for both the historic symbolism of the African elephant as a powerful leader, and a metaphor for the fragile correlation between humanity and the collapsing global ecosystem, all roleplayers at a combined meeting bought into the concept wholeheartedly.

"I was stunned when they then culled the very elephants they had commissioned."

Council Speaker Logie Naidoo said it was too early to say what the final cost of the sculptures would be.

"There are still a number of points to resolve, and these will be laid out in a report that is being compiled for the head of committee.

"We explored a range of options to find a solution acceptable to both parties, but we did not want in any way to impinge on the artist's creativity.

"The sculptures will be reconfigured to include a fourth elephant, after consultation between the city manager and the artist.

"The final details of the representation will be left to Mr Botha."

However, Naidoo was still toeing the council line that Botha had misrepresented his brief.

"Money was donated to Durban by the Department of Transport to upgrade public infrastructure in the run-up to 2010.

"Because the Warwick interchange is an important approach route to the city, it was felt that the Big Five would be an appropriate welcome for visitors. Councillors were stunned when they saw only elephants were to feature."

But Botha reiterated that the first he had heard of the Big Five was after construction was halted.

Lilian Develing, chairman of the Hillcrest and also the Combined Ratepayers Association, said if the Department of Transport balked at the increased costs of the sculptures, "we have a healthy slush fund, and the money will probably be taken from that".

She said that, rather than a failure, the lengthy (and costly) standoff should be regarded as a victory for the man in the street.

She said Botha's version of the terms of the commission was the true one. "Mike (Sutcliffe) or someone else at the beck and call of the ANC dreamed up the Big Five as a way of getting out of a sticky spot."

Council media spokesman Thabo Mofokeng attempted to get comment from the city manager, but no response was received at the time of going to press.

In the meantime, we will soon share exclusive details of a prestigious commission Botha is concluding in France, which will see a herd of his elephants marching into one of Europe's most pre-eminent galleries, and a lone elephant presiding over the Paris skyline.

Regarding the Warwick Triangle elephants, the artist said he was happy a compromise had been reached.

"I would like to pay tribute to every person who backed the vision of 'our' elephants.

"Durban has taken ownership of the sculpture in a way we have never seen before. When work is complete, everyone in Durban is invited to join me and the elephants for the party that will end all parties."

Sunday Tribune

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