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.
Appeal to tradition
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.