Mandla Mandela, center, grandson of former South African president Nelson Mandela, sits with the elders of Qunu during the funeral of his relative 97-year-old Florence Mandela on June 15, 2013 in Qunu. Nelson Mandela's family sought criminal charges of grave tampering against the former South African president's oldest grandson on July 2, 2013, amid an escalating row linked to the eventual burial site of the ailing anti-apartheid hero. (Jennifer Bruce/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

It seems like a story line from a lurid soap opera. The remains of an aging patriarch’s three deceased children are secretly moved from their graves in a family plot. Two years later, other family members go to court to have the bodies returned. The messy fight — over legacy, money and traditions — unfolds as the patriarch lies critically ill, unable to intervene.

Only this is not fiction, and the patriarch is Nelson Mandela.

As the anti-apartheid icon fights for his life in a hospital, his family is clashing over where and how he is to be buried. The squabble is playing out in newspapers, on the Internet and on TV, angering a nation gripped by grief and praying for its beloved 94-year-old former president.

The family feud is precisely the sort of drama that Mandela had sought to avoid in his later years. He had withdrawn from public life to Qunu, a remote village where he grew up, eager to spend his last days in peace.

“It’s a disgrace,” said Edward Kutoane, 37, a security guard who was playing with his toddler son steps away from Mandela’s former house, which is now a museum. “It violates the very principles the old man lived by. He lived a peaceful life with respect for others. We expected his children and grandchildren to be the same, but they have forgotten where they come from.”

The fight over the graves is the latest chapter in a family saga about Mandela’s legacy and what he passes on. In recent months, two of his daughters have sued to gain control of companies set up by a Mandela trust reportedly worth millions of dollars, while other relatives have marketed Mandela’s name and image in other commercial ventures, even in a television reality show called “Being Mandela.”

A South African high court judge last week ruled that a group of 16 relatives and senior clan members could exhume the remains of the three deceased Mandela children and return them to Qunu. The plot there includes a grave prepared for Mandela, who had said that he wanted to be buried next to his children.

But Mandla Mandela, his eldest grandson, is contesting the court ruling. In 2011, he allegedly moved the remains to his home in Mvezo, a village about 14 miles from Qunu. Mvezo is where Nelson Mandela was born. Neither the family nor the elders in Mandela’s clan were consulted. The remains include those of Makaziwe, Mandela’s first daughter, who died when she was 9 months old; Thembekile, who was killed in a 1969 car accident; and Makgatho, Mandla’s father, who died of an AIDS-
related illness in 2005

The family fight grew more tense this week. Mandela’s relatives have lodged a criminal complaint against Mandla, accusing him of grave tampering, and police said they are investigating the matter.

On Wednesday, the high court issued a ruling ordering Mandla to restore the remains by the afternoon. But it was unclear whether he would appeal the ruling.

Where Mandela is buried could determine who will lead his family after his death. Mandla, who is the oldest male heir, is the local tribal chief of Mvezo and a lawmaker with the ruling African National Congress. Mandela’s daughter Makaziwe, who was given the same name as her deceased sister and is the eldest of his surviving children, is widely seen as the leader of the family. In recent months, she has been more outspoken, giving interviews about her father’s condition and criticizing the foreign media’s handling of the story.

Money is also at stake. Mandela’s burial site will most certainly become a magnet for tourists in the years and decades to come. Mandla has expressed plans to open a Mandela heritage center in Mvezo, which has added to the resentment within the family.

In a statement, Mandla said he is challenging the court action because he had promised his grandfather that he would guard their clan’s culture and customs and that he would develop Mvezo. But he added that “the way we are handling these matters is contrary to our customs and a deep disappointment to my grandfather and our ancestors.”

He also sought to distance himself from his aunts’ legal efforts to gain control of the companies, saying that he did not want to be “associated with court actions that are a clear squabble over my grandfather’s monies.”

Mandela’s large family — six children, 17 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren — has long been controversial and outspoken. In recent days, Makaziwe Mandela publicly described the foreign media as racist “vultures.” And Winnie Madikizela-­Mandela, Mandela’s ex-wife, blasted President Jacob Zuma for visiting him with other ANC leaders in April and taking pictures that were later broadcast, leading to accusations that the party was using the visit for political purposes.

The family feud has generated so much anxiety among South Africans that in some churches, prayers were being said not only for Mandela’s recovery but also for his relatives to settle their disputes. During Sunday services in Qunu, the Rev. Sonwabile Msotyana told congregants, who included Mandla, that Nelson Mandela would want to return to a united family when he gets well.

“We are here to pray for him to recover and to also pray for the unity of the nation . . . especially at this most serious time, when a lot of things are being said about the Mandela family,” said Msotyana, according to the Sowetan, a local newspaper. “The family must close the cracks created by Satan.”

Some elders from Mandela’s clan have said that exhuming remains violates their beliefs and traditions and is considered a bad omen. The elders are expected to meet next week in Qunu to try to broker peace between his relatives and resolve the matter over the remains, according to the South African Press Association news agency.

In Soweto, the issue of ancient traditions and culture weighed on residents as much as the spectacle of the Mandela family fighting in a court ruled by modern laws. It was important, many said, for Mandela to be laid to rest next to his children in Qunu. “If not, it will bring bad luck to the family,” said Walter Moshidi, a 35-year-old unemployed man.

For most South Africans, the family feud is a reflection of how vastly different Mandela’s character is from that of his heirs. “Evidently grace and dignity are not inherited,” read an editorial in the Citizen, a well-known local newspaper.