It is, without a doubt, one of the most arresting pieces of public art imaginable, a statue unlike any other.
Joburg doesn’t have as many statues as other cities and surprisingly few of the egregious colonial variety – not a patronising Cecil Rhodes, nor a Paul Kruger commanding an entire city square.
No, we’ve got Captain Carl von Brandis outside the high court, Mahatma Gandhi in his lawyer’s gown at the bus terminus that bears his name, and a really cool 3D rendering of Madiba as a boxer, towering over the magistrate’s court, opposite his and Tambo’s old Chancellor House practice.
Up the road there’s a sweet tableau of Albertina and Walter Sisulu sitting together just off the giant street that bears Albertina’s name and cuts Joburg in two from the west all the way through to OR Tambo International Airport.
There are some other novel statues, such as the miners in Braamfontein and outside the Chamber of Mines, a 3D rendering of a woman with a brazier of coals atop her head as you come off the Queen Elizabeth Bridge, and a gogo with a child outside the Bree Street taxi rank.
However, this statue knocks the whole lot into a cocked hat.
It’s impossible not to look at it without feeling aghast at what it appears to represent – and the apparent contradictions.
It’s a woman standing on stilts in the middle of Beyers Naude Square. She has a baby strapped to her back in a pose that is quintessentially Africa. In her right hand she holds a placard with the slogan “Democracy is dialogue”, in her left a Molotov cocktail, that ubiquitous weapon of the 1980s uprising, a bottle filled with petrol with a rag stuffed down the neck as a makeshift fuse.
Sculptor Lawrence Lemaoana intended her to be holding a candle in a bottle to light the way. I prefer thinking of it as a petrol bomb.
As such, it is at once a blinding obscenity, like screaming “f**k” in the middle of a funeral; the life-giving mother with a weapon of terror in her hand – even her placard is brandished like a weapon.
When he was unveiling the statue this week, mayor Parks Tau described Beyers Naude Square as a place of protest. He’s not far off.
For those of who live in and love the central business district, few will forget the pitched battles of Luthuli House when the ANC was disciplining its enfant terrible, Julius Malema.
For us on The Star and the Saturday Star, having to work within a police cordon for the first, and hopefully only, times in their careers was bizarre – and a little scary.
We remember the diehard ANC Youth League members ripping the cobble stones out of the pavements with their bare hands to bombard the public order police officers and anyone else in range.
No, Tau had it spot-on. The Library Gardens, now named after that most non-violent of clerics, Naude, is a place of anger, and sometimes violence, in the heart of the Gauteng government precinct. And what of the mother with a candle in a bottle or preparing to throw a petrol bomb?
Lest we forget, it was the mother of the nation herself, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who uttered the immortal phrase “with our match boxes and our necklaces we shall liberate this country” in 1986.
Almost three decades later, those of us who lived through it have almost forgotten the horror of the time, the unimaginably bloody civil war which raged in our townships, spilling over into cities, but never the suburbs. Then there are the generations for whom it’s just an entry in the history books.
The poster makes sense too, democracy is dialogue, but how do you speak when you aren’t allowed a voice? How do get heard when no one is prepared to listen?
The statue stands as perhaps the most brutally honest representation of the Struggle yet. There’s no heroic freedom fighter with an AK-47, or the muscled hero breaking his chains like the one in Lusaka. This is brutal, uncompromising and in yer face – and totally true.
As history is revised and revisited, villains airbrushed and heroes deleted, let none of us forget the critical role ordinary South Africans played in liberating their country, ordinary men and women, sick to their stomachs at being stateless in the land of their birth (apologies, Sol Plaatje).
When the people rose up, the repression was effectively over, it was just a matter of time... a bloody, bitter time.
Thanks to this statue no one will ever be in any doubt.
“You strike a woman, you strike a rock,” proclaimed the women 59 years ago to Prime Minister JG Strijdom. They walked the talk in the cauldron of the 1990s.
All they have to do now is to stand up against the men who should know better, the very people who subject them to the scourge that dare not be named; domestic violence, the beatings behind closed doors and drawn curtains. We should have a replica of the statue outside every pub, shebeen, restaurant toilet.
The hand that rocks the cradle lights the petrol bomb: rapists, wife-beaters and all other misogynists beware.