Johannesburg: When Nelson Mandela's sculpture was unveiled at the seat of government in Pretoria after his burial last month, no one noticed one small detail: a bronze rabbit nestled in his right ear.
The Department of Arts and Culture has ordered the removal of the rabbit in order to restore the dignity of the nine-metre bronze-plated sculpture of South Africa's first black president.
The rabbit, reminiscent of a Disney character, was secretly added by the artists, Ruhan Janse Van Vuuren and Andre Prinsloo, in lieu of a signature. It was also a comment on the tight deadline to complete the job, according to comments from Prinsloo to the Beeld newspaper; the Afrikaans word ''haas'' means both rabbit and haste.
They cheekily added the "small trademark" after the department denied them permission to add their signatures to the sculpture on the trouser leg of the figure, according to Beeld.
"The time factor was big and at times we had to work hard," Prinsloo told Beeld. He said the rabbit was too small to be visible to viewers.
"You need a long lens or binoculars to see it. During the moulding process, a lot of people saw the statue up close and nobody noticed it," he said.
Prinsloo told the Mail and Guardian he was "sorry that such a small thing could cause such a palaver".
The artists, both experienced bronze sculptors who have worked on sculptures of famous South Africans, did not respond to calls and emails on Wednesday.
Arts Minister Paul Mashatile said in a statement that the artists had apologised and the apology had been accepted.
"At no stage was the department made aware of the sculptors' intention to place the object of a rabbit in the ear of the statue. Nor did the department receive any request from the artists to add such a signature to the work," the statement said.
The statue, depicting Mandela with his trademark smile and arms open wide, was unveiled the day after his burial in his home village of Qunu. It was erected in front of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, a short distance from the amphitheatre where Mandela lay in state for three days after his death.
"It is unfortunate that the sculptors ... chose to place an object in the statue without the knowledge of those who commissioned them," Mr Mashatile said. "They have since apologised for this and for any offence that may have been given to those who felt their actions disrespected the memory and legacy of Tata Mandela," he said, using the affectionate name most South Africans use for Mandela.
"However, considering the stature Madiba enjoyed here and abroad, a more appropriate artist signature would have been preferred," he said, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
Dali Tambo, spokeswoman for Koketso Growth, a culture and tourism development body that was deployed by the department to commission the sculpture, described the rabbit as "regrettable" and a "senseless prank". Mr Tambo is the son of Oliver Tambo, who led the African National Congress during the years when Mandela was imprisoned by the apartheid regime.
A few South Africans urged the government not to remove the rabbit, under the Twitter hashtag #savetherabbit.
Despite their pleas, Mr Mashatile said a decision on how to remove the rabbit without damaging the sculpture was being made.