Nelson Mandela and the little bird on his head


I had put off publishing this but it seems open season started with no other than Zelda la Grange (Mandela’s personal Assistant) who wrote her memoir called Good Morning, Mr Mandela. She has struck the iron while it was still hot. Get while the getting is good.

When I  saw the statue of Nelson Mandela at the Union Buildings for the first time I was in awe at its size, an impressive 9 metre bronze sculpture. I was working as a photographic assistant for Tamuka Mtengwa at a wedding shoot, when I spotted a bird on top of Madiba’s head. It was no ordinary bird it was a Common Mayna, an invasive species from India. Perched on his head like a boss. It gave me another view of Mandela’s legacy and had me pondering about it for a while.

Just as this giant structure was engineered and meticulously crafted over hours of scrutiny and calculations, so was the legacy that is Brand Mandela. I have no question of Mandela’s struggle credentials and value before he went to prison. Its the period after prison that I am skeptical about. After 27 years he walks out of prison a hero to become the president of the country, certainly the stuff conspiracy theories are made of, a fairy tale.

I give credit to the the engineers who created and crafted the Mandela brand and the Rainbow Nation, they did a good and effective job, and like anything over time the cracks start to show.

The bird on his head does what birds on statues do… This bird is a Mayna which is an invasive species. It was kind of symbolic to me that a little bird which has no roots in this country is sitting on top of the most iconic figure on the African continent. This bird does its business on top of Mandela’s head, not only on him but everything he represents. The bird to me are the crafters of the Mandela Brand and the proverbial Rainbow Nation and with a promise of a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.

The Rabbit in Madiba’s ear

This also reminded me of the rabbit that was left in Madiba’s ear.

The sculptors claimed;

“It also represented the tight deadline to which they worked, as “rabbit” translated into Afrikaans as “haas”, which also meant “haste” He said the “small symbol” was hidden in the ear and did not detract from the statue. (Source)


Tsuro Magen’a  as he is known in Shona culture or Brer Rabbit was the mischievous rabbit who always conned the baboon or the bear. Had this been in Zimbabwe, then this rabbit in the ear would have had some serious connotations. Especially with the folk tales of the rabbit and the baboon. The rabbit in the ear could be interpreted as Mandela, the hero was not his own person but had a ‘little rabbit’ whispering in his ear, directing his every thought pulling on the strings. After all, the Mandela that is celebrated by mainstream media is the one who came out of prison victorious to be inaugurated as the president of the country, not the terrorist who was sentenced and imprisoned for 27 years and had residence on the US Terrorist Watch List until 2008, thats right 2008!!!

Will Mandela’s legacy last

Finally how long will the Mandela legacy last? As long as the brand remains in the hearts of the people.

Ecclesiastes 9:5: For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.

That is the harsh reality, he will be forgotten and soon.

The legacy will only exist while the legend is emotionally attached to a specific generation. Once that generation goes then that sentimentality goes and he just becomes another historical figure. My children know images of Mabiba when they see them. Though they have no emotional attachment to his legacy. Hence he is just a historical figure to them. Mugabe is in the same light to them as well.

Remembering an Icon

There will always be different views about Mandela, he certainly was a hero for the people especially before he went into prison. The view that will stay longer in the minds of the people is that which is pushed by mainstream media. But my view is that he was broken down physically and mentally. Twenty years hard labour in jail is a very long time.  I am sure there is much we will never really know about that time. Unfortunately the last impressions I have of Madiba are the ones that seem to be having a lasting effect on me.

For such a struggle icon, for me to remember him this way is sad, a reality for most struggle icons in Africa unfortunately. I felt they didn’t negotiate the best deal for the people of South Africa. With the tender trend soon there will be a million dollar tender to clean the head of Madiba’s statue. In the same way it will take decades to rectify what was left undone.

It was my intention to write this shortly after his death. I was too emotionally charged and disgusted by the hypocrisy shown by world leaders who flocked to the country. They came just to be a ‘whose who’ on a red carpet. Denying the very community which raised Madiba, to attend his burial. I even commented about Winnie and the will saga. In hindsight I realise maybe they had their own settlement. Winnie probably received whatever she wanted and in turn would have no part in the will. Regardless of the fact that she was the mother of his children.

Different Opinion on Mandela’s Legacy

At times I wonder is it even allowed to have a different view and opinion of Mandela’s legacy? To refuse to be swayed by the media hype and have a personal view of the legend. I look forward to the documentaries and books of alternative views on his legacy. Or an in-depth article on the commercialisation of Nelson Mandela, who would broadcast such, who would publish, who would fund such a research to ascertain exactly how corporations have benefitted from using his name, how much money was spent on the funeral ceremony and pomp, how much was raked in from broadcasting of the funeral? I am not holding my breath.

My opinion of Mandela’s legacy after prison, I think it is largely manufactured, a process which started well before his release. This may have been a good thing because it averted a civil war. It may have been a bad thing as the oppressed majority may feel short changed. Yet not totally emancipated hence the perception that he ‘sold out’. With all this the ANC should also get whatever glory or criticism that comes with Mandela. Whatever he achieved he could not have achieved it without the support of the ANC. Unless he was a dictator who imposed his views whether good or bad on his party.

The honey moon is over and brand Mandela was only effective while he was alive. Now it will slowly lose relevance in the hearts and minds of the people. The brand will not have any emotive sway or meaning to the next generation. What are they, the rabbits and the birds going to use this time to subdue/distract and dare I say hoodwink a disenfranchised people?

With this post I pay my last respects to Nelson Mandela.