Mandela family feud upsetting society and African tradition
The family of Nelson Mandela is being urged to stop their infighting and let him die in peace
Pointedly, Mandla spoke of how his grandfather had asked him to assume the chieftainship in a ceremony in 2007. “Though reluctant to leave my life and trek to the rural areas, my grandfather reminded me that my first responsibility should be that of service to our people.”
Brushing aside suggestions he was trying to profit from the creation of a family burial site at Mvezo, 20km from Qunu where Mandela’s children had first been buried, he said Nelson was on his side.
“My grandfather did prophesise about this date because, randomly, when we used to have lunch or dinner, he would ask: ‘Which one of you wants to go and live in the rural areas?’ and . . . they would all object: ‘No granddad we don’t want to live in a rural area’, and he would laugh and smile and look at me.”
While there is an acute sensitivity about discussing Mandela’s health in public, the dispute has brought into the open questions about who would be responsible for deciding on his treatment if he was no longer able to do so himself. It was confirmed in court that Mandela is using an assisted breathing apparatus and Makaziwe described his health as “perilous”.
The issue is complicated by African customs which prohibit a family member from intervening directly in the process of dying. “He [Mandela] has to be the one to tell the family to start the ritual,” says Dr Alex Asakitikpi, a sociologist at Monash University in Johannesburg who researches traditional beliefs around mortality.
“When someone is at the point of death they are seen to be at a ‘liminal’ stage – neither spiritual nor physical – and you have to perform various rituals to make sure the person is properly transcended. The significant members of the family must be present and must reconcile their grievances.”
There appeared to be coded references to the issue in this week’s court case. Among the submissions made by Makaziwe’s side was that the removal of the bodies had disturbed the spirits of the “ancestors”, contributing to Mandela’s ill-health.
“The tradition is that when the dead is desecrated it tends to affect the society not only in the present but in the future,” said Dr Asakitikpi.
Some figures in the ANC have criticised the open discussions of Mandela’s health, describing them as “un-African”, but not everyone agrees. Party veteran Epainette Mbeki (97), known as “MaMbeki” (and mother of Mandela’s presidential successor Thabo Mbeki), said Mandela should be “let go. ”
While talking about death is considered taboo in conservative African societies, Dr Asakitikpi says South Africa has modernised in this regard. Mandela himself broke an important taboo in 2005 by revealing his son Makgatho – Mandla’s father – died of an Aids-related illness.
For Mandela’s family, the public debate is another example of the burden of their name. While they have drawn much criticism, it has been tempered by an appreciation that the family has bonded at times of crisis, notably in 2010 when one of Mandela’s great-granddaughters died in a crash on the first night of the Fifa World Cup.
There is hope that the family may come together again and so, in however small a way, continue Mandela’s legacy.
His message remains apposite today as when he emerged from his 10,000 days in prison: “We need to reconcile our differences through reason, debate and compromise.”