Mandela’s Family Feud: As Global Icon Lies in Hospital, Relatives’ Squabbles Intensify

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Alexander Joe / AFP / Getty Images

Nelson Mandela's family graves in Qunu, South Africa, on Jan. 28, 2011

Was there ever a more edifying contrast than between Nelson Mandela and his descendants? While the 94-year-old icon of humanity lies in the hospital, fighting a recurrent lung condition stemming from his 27 years in apartheid-era prisons, his family is fighting over the bones of his children. Let me repeat that. They’re fighting over the bones of his children.

At its heart, the dispute is about who gets to earn money from Mandela’s grave, which will likely become a site of national pilgrimage. In his will, Mandela requested to be buried next to his children, three of whom have already passed. Mandela’s first daughter Makaziwe died as an infant in 1948, his second son Madiba Thembekile died in a car accident in 1969 and his eldest son Makgatho died of complications due to HIV/AIDS in 2005.

Mandela had three wives, 17 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Sixteen members of the family have filed court papers alleging that some years ago Mandela’s grandson and Makgatho’s son Mandla — whom Mandela anointed head of the family after Makgatho’s death — dug up his relatives’ three graves in Qunu, the village in South Africa’s Eastern Cape to which Mandela retired. Mandla moved the remains to Mvezo, a village a short drive away where Mandela was born and where Mandla is building a four-story luxury hotel.

Last week the 16 family members were granted an interim court order in the nearby city of Mthatha to exhume the bodies once more and return them to the family graveyard in Qunu. A member of the Mandela family told South Africa’s Dispatch newspaper on Monday: “He stole the remains of Madiba’s children from Qunu to Mvezo in 2011 because he knew that [Mandela] would want to be buried with [his] children, and that would be his diamond field.”

Mandla’s lawyers have said he will contest the order. In a statement on Sunday, Mandla said he was “regrettably compelled” to go to court. “The way we are handling this matter is contrary to our customs and a deep disappointment to my grandfather and his ancestors,” he said. The case is set to resume in Mthatha on Tuesday.

As perhaps the most respected human being on the planet, Mandela was always going to be a hard act to follow. The party he once led, the African National Congress (ANC), has consistently failed to live up to his legacy, descending into corruption and factional infighting. Though the ANC has plumbed some real lows, even descending into out-and-out gangster war in several South African cities, to some extent venality among politicians is not unexpected.

But among a family called Mandela, alleged profiteering from the Mandela name feels excruciating. That hasn’t made it uncommon. In addition to the accusations against Mandla, Mandela’s former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of fraud in 2003 while his two granddaughters, Zaziwe Dlamini-Manaway and Swati Dlamini, earlier this year starred in a reality TV show, Being Mandela, billed as South Africa’s answer to the Kardashians.

It seems unlikely any court can find a lasting resolution to the divide in the house of Mandela. But here South Africa’s traditions may help. Several royal chiefs of Mandela’s Xhosa tribe have now intervened, calling a meeting next Monday to find a settlement “so as to bring the necessary harmony especially during this challenging period when the patriarch of the family is ill in hospital.” Using Mandela’s traditional name, Chief Thanduxolo Mtiraras said: “Nkosi Dalibhunga [Mandela] is a rare human being, hence his family is important to all of us. If we fail to resolve these matters, we risk the world looking upon our culture, values and beliefs with disrespect, and this we should not allow.”

Mandela’s values and beliefs were centered, above all, on the idea that birth did not determine virtue and ability. As the chiefs recognize, his own family only proves how right he was.