15/03/2017 04:53 SAST | Updated 15/03/2017 10:14 SAST

How 2 Statues Tell The Tale of A Country From Mandela To Zuma

Madiba looked to the West, but Zuma looks to the East.

Gallo Images / Dino Lloyd
Madiba's statue at the Union Buildings in Pretoria has watched over celebrations, international visitors and protesters.

If there's a statue of Nelson Mandela, I will find it. While I didn't grow up always believing in his political philosophy, it took Mandela's death for me to study this grand statesman's style and the many lessons in leadership he offers us.

Last week, while in London, I went to find his statue in Westminster in the gardens opposite London's Houses of Parliament. There he was, alongside Churchill, Gandhi and a clutch of Commonwealth leaders.

The United Kingdom is in a political panic after Britain voted to leave the European Union in a moment called Brexit. The country is clearly perplexed about its place in the world as it decides on whether to undertake a "soft" Brexit or a "hard" one — its choice of degrees of separation from Europe.

And so, the garden of statues is an anachronism from a time when the UK saw its place in the world differently.

Like you, I'm not a fan of colonial empires, so this is not about Madiba being honoured by a big Western nation. But the statue, the latest and last to be placed in the Commonwealth grandees corner, tells you something about both Mandela and South Africa. He made ours into a country that mattered in the twentieth century because it bucked the trend of intractable conflict and chose a path of peace.

That path is contested and often eschewed by a new generation, but few will argue that his lessons in leadership set a benchmark in big thinking when the world desperately needed it. He was a pathfinder in the world and won a Nobel peace prize among scores of others. And he exercised a political imagination of what was possible at a time the world sought and desperately needed new benchmarks.

A statue in Groot Marico

President Jacob Zuma will soon get a statue remembering him too. It will be built in Groot Marico in the North West province by a cash-strapped municipality.

It is a highly contested statue in the way that Mandela's never was, be this the one in Sandton's Nelson Mandela Square or in London's Westminster.

It is not only the cost of Zuma's statue that is contested but the idea of the honour that has scorched political temperatures since the idea was mooted. What is it the president has done to deserve this, his detractors ask?

As his presidency reaches its end, the question of legacy will come to the forefront of political debate and the statue in a small town is a first stab at securing a legacy.

It is a presidency of scandal and survival: President Zuma has survived major scandals. This is almost unsurpassed in modern contemporary politics. Those scandals are: the arms deal; the babygate; Nkandla; State of Capture; Waterkloof; Constitutional Court judgment on Nkandla; and the rape trial of which he was acquitted but which has haunted him.

If you dig deeper, there is a somewhat deeper legacy we can begin to understand in the tale of two statues.

Mandela looked west. The honour in the UK and often in the United States shows this. Zuma looks East. The president pivoted to China early in his first term and he ensured South Africa became part of the BRICS nations comprised of Brazil, Russia, India and China with South Africa added as a belated "S" in the conurbation.

While Mandela was of Mvezo in Transkei in the Eastern Cape, he left for the city while young and remained a man of the city, although in his last years, he returned home, both spiritually and politically.

Zuma is of Nkandla, a rural and peasant man by his own proclamation. He has tried to craft a presidency that looks to the town rather than the city, to the farm rather than the corporation. How well he has done this is still up to history to judge, but it does cast a different light on the upcoming statue in Groot Marico.

And the two statues tell a story of how South Africa has travelled from Nelson Mandela to Jacob Zuma.