Things Fall Apart: Mandela’s Sad Legacy of Successors

The late South African leader's family members and President Jacob Zuma have been tainted by scandals and impropriety

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Lerato Maduna / Gallo Images / Getty Images

South African President Jacob Zuma at the opening of the new headquarters of the Congress of South African Trade Unions in Johannesburg on Feb. 29, 2012

On the edge of the village of Mvezo in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, on the spur of a hill looking out over a bend in the Mbashe River, there used to be a simple open-sided museum with four plaques inscribed with passages. One was about growing up inspired by the elders’ war stories. Another about how “1,000 slights, 1,000 indignities and 1,000 unremembered moments” had produced a slow awakening of rebellious anger in the author. The third was about being prepared to die for the idea of racial equality. The fourth was about how the road to freedom is long. When I visited Nelson Mandela’s birthplace in 2009, it was a place of simple beauty that inspired contemplation and reflection of an extraordinary, exemplary life.

Today, it is a wreck. The tin roof hangs loose and some of the inscriptions have been broken or removed, while a rank smell indicates goats use what remains of it as a shed. A few hundred meters away, there is a monstrous thatched construction big enough to be a hotel. When I last visited, the villagers of Mvezo said that a hotel, in fact, had been the original purpose of the construction. It was built, they said, by Nelson Mandela’s grandson Mandla for the same reason that Mandla had allowed the small museum to fall into ruin and for the same reason that he had unearthed the bones of three of Mandela’s children — two daughters and a son — and reburied them close by: to make Mandela’s birthplace into a lucrative attraction.

In July a court ordered Mandla to return to the bones to his family so they could be reburied outside Mandela’s home in Qunu, an hour’s drive away. Why was the family squabbling over the bones of Mandela’s children? Because Mandela had requested to be buried next to them. Whoever had the bones could profit from the tourists Mandela’s grave is expected to attract.

Mandla was once doted on by Mandela, and hailed by the former South African President when he reclaimed the family’s place in the ruling Thembu clan, part of the larger Xhosa people. When Mandela was a boy, after a dispute with the ruling British colonial authorities, his father was deposed from his chiefdom, an injury that, as Mandela writes in his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, awakened in him a “proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness.”

But Mandla’s erection of a giant building with running water and central heating on the edge of a village where his neighbors — and subjects — live in grass-roofed huts, cook over open fires and walk to the river for water is indicative of how unlike his grandfather the new chief is. That contrast encapsulates the disappointment South Africans feel about all of Mandela’s successors, whether in his family or his party, the African National Congress (ANC). “We have, in a way, lost our way,” said Jay Naidoo, a former antiapartheid activist and one of Mandela’s cabinet ministers, as he remembered Mandela on Saturday. “I feel we could be much further today if we had the same morality as Madiba. In our country today there is a lot of anger that democracy is not more meaningful … that it’s all about the self-interest of leaders. And I think the next generation is right to be angry.”

Much of that anger is directed at President Jacob Zuma. The days leading up to Mandela’s death were dominated by the latest scandal to engulf South Africa’s fourth President: a public prosecutor’s report that he spent $20 million in state funds to massively expand his private residence outside Durban from 11 buildings to more than 90, and to construct a giant swimming pool. Zuma has also faced consistent allegations of corruption — one of his advisers was jailed for passing on bribes to him — and in 2005 he was also accused, though later acquitted, of rape.

Zuma is only the most prominent of a host of ANC leaders at all levels to face accusations of impropriety. Last year the independent Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution said one-fifth of South Africa’s annual GDP — an astonishing $81.6 billion — was being lost to corruption and crime. At times, there is little to distinguish the politicians from gangsters. Close to 60 ANC politicians have been murdered in the past five years, often in disputes over state resources. On Saturday, mourners lay flowers outside Victor Verster Prison in the Cape Winelands, in front of a statue of Mandela punching the air as he had in the same spot on his release after 27 years in jail in February of 1990. “I’m afraid now that old man is gone,” said Dambile Ntlomo, 31. “That guy was not about the money. Zuma and the others — they’re all about the money. And if things go bad — maybe people even start fighting — that Zuma will do nothing.”

When it comes to younger Mandelas, however, South Africans feel more ashamed than angry. Mandela’s former wife Winnie, who once tried to open a burger restaurant called Mandela’s, was convicted of 43 counts of fraud and 25 of theft in 2003. She is also haunted by the murder 25 years ago of two men last seen being beaten at her house in Soweto: their bodies were unearthed for re-examination in March.

For the past two years, meanwhile, South Africans have been watching the behavior of other members of the Mandela family through their fingers. One of Mandela’s daughters, Zindzi, is often in the newspaper for throwing lavish parties. Two others, Makaziwe Mandela and Zenani Dlamini, sued his lawyer, George Bizos, in April in an attempt to force him to release a family trust. A Mandela son-in-law has been charged with rape. A grandson, along with a nephew of Zuma’s, was implicated in a deal that saw a gold mine asset-stripped while its 3,000 workers were unpaid. Two granddaughters, Zaziwe Dlamini-Manaway and Swati Dlamini, also have their own reality TV show, Being Mandela, South Africa’s answer to Keeping Up With the Kardashians. This never-ending family saga might even intrude on South Africa’s week of mourning leading up to Mandela’s burial in Qunu on Dec. 15. On Dec. 12, Mandla is due in court in nearby Mthatha on an assault charge.

“I don’t think there will be another guy like Mandela,” said Jonny Banza, another mourner outside Victor Verster. “That guy brought everyone together. We need to be all together. These other Mandelas — who say they love Mandela — they must think about what Mandela said about being together as South Africans. If you are not together, you fall apart.”

Related content:
The Indispensable Man: Nelson Mandela (1918–2013)
A Tribute to Nelson Mandela by Pulitzer Winner David Turnley
Nelson Mandela: An Indispensable Life in Pictures
The Best Nelson Mandela Covers From Around The World