It has been exactly 30 years since the enor-mous 9-m-tall statue of George Harrison, captured in a dramatic Eureka moment, was commissioned to commemorate the centenary of the discovery of gold on the farm Langlaagte.
That statue, which stands sentry to the city’s eastern entrance, on Albertina Sisulu road, has become such an inherent feature of Johannesburg’s landscape and of the com- mute between the city and the eastern suburbs that few now stop to reflect on its symbolism or even the circumstances of its commissioning. In fact, it is unlikely that most Joburgers, especially of the younger generation, will even know who and what that statue represents. (Unfortunately, for those wanting to take an interest, the statue itself provides no information, with the two bronze descriptive plaques having been stolen many years ago.)
Yet, it is one of the city’s most intriguing pieces of public art, with a history that is as fascinating and mired in controversy as the statue is large and imposing of the surrounding landscape.
The idea to erect a commemorative statue was mooted in May 1985 – rather late in the day, considering the centennial anniversary was just ten months away – by the management committee of Johannesburg’s City Council.
The motivation behind such an idea, beyond the council’s obvious need to mark the city’s centenary, was that Johannesburg had always lacked a statue honouring the man who discovered the main conglomerate reef of the richest goldfield in the world. However, it must be said that this was never a result of a lack of will or funds, but was due to the fact that the issue of who the actual discoverer was had always been a highly contested subject. Nevertheless, the City Council, which was headed by Francois Oberholzer, who appears to have been a rather obstinate character, decided to ignore such a trifling detail and steam-rolled the project forward.
Given the nature of the anniversary, the project was overly ambitious, with the committee envisaging an exceptionally larger-than-life statue situated at the city’s most strategic entrance. By erecting a five-times-larger-than-life statue at the city’s eastern entrance, which was the main route from the airport into the central business district, Oberholzer argued that it would not only “be seen by millions of people annually”, but would also be a significant landmark that would “mean to the city what the Statue of Liberty means to New York”.
While the motive behind the idea may have been altruistic enough, from the very start, it was mired in controversy. The most glaring controversy concerned the actual man the committee chose to honour. Astonishingly, the committee chose to ignore the findings of the 1939–1941 government-sponsored inquiry into that question, which had declared George Walker the true discoverer. Instead, it did its own research, which concluded that it was, in fact, Harrison who deserved that honour. Such a decision could have been based on the need for continuity of Johannesburg’s public spaces, as the park that incorporated the original discovery site on Langlaagte had been christened after Harrison. Needless to say, that move was hotly contested at the time, with many accusing the committee of paying homage to the wrong man.
The second storm erupted when the committee decided not to issue a tender but rather commissioned the artist Tienie Pritchard to undertake the project. The controversy did not concern Pritchard himself, for he was, and still is, one of South Africa’s foremost bronze sculptors, but rather the committee’s failure to consult the city’s art experts before doing so. It is probably owing to the fact that Oberholzer had an innate disdain for unconventional art and was notorious for challenging art authorities and critics that he completely bypassed this bureaucratic red tape and unilaterally commissioned Pritchard.
The third debate raged over the cost and the fact that the committee paid for the statue using ratepayers’ money. Costing in excess of R500 000, which was a substantial sum in the mid-1980s, especially given the country’s economic woes and sanctions, the expenditure on something as frivolous as a statue was deemed a complete waste of taxes.
Attempting to defend this expenditure, Oberholzer explained in a letter published in The Saturday Star that the committee had originally tried to find a sponsor for the project, but ,“owing to the boycott threat emanating from a certain section of the black community”, all sponsorship interest had soon been withdrawn. He also argued that the council had to follow the “magnificent example” shown by the private sector, which had contributed R146-million towards the centenary celebra-tions. Besides, he concluded, it was a “small price to pay”, being only once in 100 years, “to erect a monument to the discoverer of gold”.
It was for these reasons that the statue, which had been intended to be the city’s answer to New York’s Statue of Liberty, became popularly known as ‘Obie’s Folly’.
Nevertheless, the actual manufacture and erection of the statue are a fascinating story in itself and will be elaborated on in the next instalment.