JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's government is up in arms over a bronze rabbit crafted inside the ear of a large statue of former president Nelson Mandela unveiled last month.
The government said it wanted the creature removed to "restore integrity" to the 9-metre (30 foot) bronze sculpture of the anti-apartheid hero, who died on December 5 aged 95.
The statue, the world's biggest representing Mandela, was inaugurated at South Africa's government buildings 11 days after his death.
Artists Ruhan Janse van Vuuren and Andre Prinsloo say they added the animal, its ears erect, as a personal stamp after the government stopped them from engraving signatures on their 4.5 tonne statue, and as a nod to the tight deadline they faced.
The Afrikaans word for rabbit, "haas," also means haste.
"The rabbit is symbolic and represents the haste with which we had to make the stature," Prinsloo told the Afrikaans language Beeld newspaper.
"The time factor was big and we worked very hard at times."
The artists have since apologised.
The hidden rabbit was only discovered last week by Beeld, a month after the sculpture was inaugurated on the lawn of the hilltop Union Buildings overlooking the capital Pretoria.
A spokesman for the Department of Arts and Culture, Mogomotsi Mogodiri, said the government did not think the added animal was appropriate. "It really undermines what we erected that statue for," he said.
Mogodiri rejected the suggestion that Mandela, who was known for his sense of humour, might find the rabbit amusing.
"Yes, Madiba had a good sense of humour," he said, referring to South Africa's first democratically-elected president by his clan name.
"But for now we are being philosophical: it was agreed that nothing else goes on the statue."
(Reporting by David Dolan and Ed Cropley; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)