JOHANNESBURG — Nelson Mandela’s eldest grandson believed that he had a right, as the traditional heir to the anti-apartheid icon’s clan, to rebury the remains of three of Mandela’s children. But Mandela’s eldest daughter and other relatives went to court, using modern laws to restore the remains to their original place last week.
Then over the weekend, the king of Mandela’s abaThembu tribe vowed to “eject” the grandson, Mandla Mandela, from his position as a traditional chief, which would make him ineligible to lead Mandela’s clan. Mandla has said he would resist any such move.
As the 94-year-old former South African president remains critically ill but in stable condition, his family’s public feud over money, family authority and his legacy is also becoming a tussle over the control of his tribal lineage. It is a contest that pits two South Africas against each other — one ruled by culture and tradition, the other by a modern system of laws. Under African traditional codes, which are protected by South Africa’s constitution, who leads Mandela’s clan after his death stands to inherit his spiritual and financial legacy, potentially worth millions of dollars.
“The one who is designated as traditional leader is the one who is heir to Madiba’s estate,” said Phathekile Holomisa, head of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa, referring to Mandela by his clan name. “Every child is interested in getting something from his or her parents’ estate.”
The family clash erupted into the public realm two weeks ago after Mandela’s relatives went to court to force Mandla to exhume the graves of three of the icon’s children. In 2011, Mandla had secretly removed the bones from Qunu, the village where his grandfather grew up, and brought them to Mvezo, where his grandfather was born.
Mandla, who is the chief of Mvezo, has been accused of attempting to have his grandfather buried there in order to claim his legacy and bring millions in tourist dollars and development to Mvezo.
In court, Mandla’s lawyers argued he was following African traditional laws when he moved the remains. As chief, he was the leader of the clan and allowed to make such decisions.
But the judge rejected those assertions and last week ordered the exhumation of the graves. The bones were later reburied in Qunu, where Nelson Mandela wishes to be laid to rest. Mandela’s relatives have also filed a criminal complaint against Mandla charging illegal tampering with grave sites.
At a news conference after the verdict, Mandla denied taking the remains illegally. He also attacked his relatives for trying to destroy the family and use Mandela’s name and image for ulterior motives, including seeking to seize control of companies that managed royalties from the sale of his paintings.
At the same time, Mandla sought to present himself as a traditionalist fighting the modern ways of his relatives. He spoke of how his grandfather convinced him to give up aspirations to become a deejay and businessman in order to become a traditional chief and his heir to lead the Madiba clan. He defended himself against allegations by his half-brother, Ndaba, that he was illegitimate and cannot be the chief of the clan. Mandla also tried to distance himself from relatives who he accused of using the Mandela brand for commercial purposes, and questioned whether some were even Mandelas.
“Everyone wants to be a Mandela,” said Mandla. “Individuals have abandoned their own families and heritage and decided to jump on the Mandela wagon.”
The family divisions, playing out publicly in newspapers, on television and in social media, have riveted the nation. The tensions have also spawned a debate over cultural practices and who has the right to make decisions.
According to Holomisa, Mandla should have consulted other family members, particularly Makaziwe, Mandela’s eldest daughter, before removing the remains. But in the end, as the heir to the Mandela dynasty, Mandla has the final say, said Holomisa, adding that he was “disappointed” when Makaziwe and other relatives took the matter to court.
Nokuzola Mndende, a religious studies expert, argued that all decisions about customs and traditions are made by the family, not by any one individual. She said that family in African culture is not the nuclear family as “portrayed by the West” but everyone “unified by blood irrespective of gender.”
“Speaking about individual rights to decide where the deceased should be buried is new in African culture and is based on arrogance and male chauvinism,” Mndende, a former lecturer at the University of Cape Town, wrote in the Sunday Independent newspaper over the weekend. “There is no way that an individual can claim the absolute right for somebody who is shared by many.”
On Saturday, King Buleyekhaya Dalindyebo, the ruler of the Thembu people, of which Mandela’s clan is a part, told a gathering near Qunu that Mandla had no right to be a chief, and that Ndaba should be anointed chief.
“I don't even want to give him dignity to say he will be removed, he will be ejected,” Dalindyebo told the crowd, according to local news reports. “People who dig up graves in the middle of the night are witches. We can't talk to witches.”
But Freddy Pilusa, the spokesman for Mandla, said that the king “has no authority whatsoever to remove Mandla from his position. We are not taking anything he says seriously.”
And as for Ndaba replacing Mandla as the head of Mandela’s clan, Pilusa said: “Ndaba is not the firstborn. That is not how it works customarily.”