"It doesn't belong there," said Mogomotsi Mogodiri, a department spokesman. "The statue represents what everyone in South Africa is proud of."
His department said in a statement that there are discussions on "how best to retain the integrity of the sculpture without causing any damage or disfigurement."
Translation: pull the rabbit out of the ear without botching the statue. The giant work stands with arms outstretched, symbolizing Mandela's devotion to inclusiveness, outside the Union Buildings, where the body of the prisoner who opposed white rule and became South Africa's first black president lay in state after his Dec. 5 death at the age of 95.
Telephone calls and emails sent by The Associated Press to the artists were not immediately returned.
Earlier this week, South Africa's Beeld newspaper quoted the artists as saying they added the rabbit as a "trademark" after officials would not allow them to engrave their signatures on the statue's trousers. They also said the rabbit represented the pressure of finishing the sculpture on time because "haas" the word for rabbit in the Dutch-based Afrikaans language also means "haste."
Paul Mashatile, arts and culture minister, said the sculptors have apologized for any offense to those who felt the rabbit was disrespectful toward the legacy of Mandela.
The government had appointed Koketso Growth, a heritage development company, to manage the statue project. CEO Dali Tambo, son of anti-apartheid figure Oliver Tambo, said he was furious when he heard about the rabbit, and said it must go.
"That statue isn't just a statue of a man, it's the statue of a struggle, and one of the most noble in human history," Tambo said. "So it's belittling, in my opinion, if you then take it in a jocular way and start adding rabbits in the ear."
It would be, he said, like depicting U.S. President Barack Obama with a mouse in his nose.
Tambo said the artists, who belong to South Africa's white Afrikaner minority, were selected for their talent but also in part because the project was a multi-racial effort in keeping with Mandela's principle of reconciliation. He said their signatures could be added on the statue in a discreet place, perhaps on Mandela's heel.