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

Nelson Mandela has dedicated himself to peace and reconciliation. So the sight of his family at war over money and the control of his legacy is particularly unedifying to South Africans.

This week bailiffs had to break into a makeshift cemetery to retrieve the bodies of three of Mandela’s children which had been controversially relocated. Claims have been made of grave-robbing. Insults and allegations of “illegitimacy” are flying. And all this while their father and grandfather, South Africa’s beloved Madiba, lies critically ill in a Pretoria hospital.

In one corner stands Mandela’s eldest daughter Makaziwe, who orchestrated the court action over the burial ground. In the other stands Mandla, the former president’s grandson and oldest male heir, who has accused his aunt of “seeking revenge” against him for opposing her bid to access a family trust. Some of the squabbling would be typical of any family, but the Mandelas don’t have the privilege of privacy. Their lives have never been normal, something the anti-apartheid hero himself has acknowledged with sadness.

“When your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room left for family,” Mandela said in 1992, two years after his release from prison. “That has always been my greatest regret and the most painful aspect of the choice I made.”


Makaziwe was one of those who suffered for her father's politics. She was 10-years-old when the African National Congress leader was jailed on Robben Island and she wasn't able to see him again until she turned 16 because of prison rules.

The youngest of four children who Mandela had with his first wife Evelyn Mase, Makaziwe has spoken of how his absence left her with a feeling of “not really [being] loved”. While she had come to terms with this, her two brothers had died without a reconciliation with their father, she added.

Today, Makaziwe is a successful businesswoman, sitting on the boards of several companies as well as setting up her own wine label, House of Mandela. The latter has been criticised by some family members who don’t like the name’s link with alcohol.

More controversially, she has joined in a court action with her half-sister Zenani to try to remove some of their father’s closest confidants from his Mandela Trust. This controls image rights and channels funds into his various foundations.

Court papers filed by Mandela’s lawyer Bally Chuene in May accused the daughters of amending a trust deed in secret so they could gain access to Nelson’s wealth. The lawyer claims he was “infuriated” by his daughters’ attempts to gain control of the trust without his knowledge.

It is a charge the daughters deny, and the case is due to return to the Johannesburg High Court. But the optics are not good. One of the trustees the two women are trying to remove is George Bizos, a respected lawyer who famously represented Mandela at the 1964 Rivonia treason trial.

As for Mandla, he suffers his own burden from the weight of his grandfather’s reputation. In an extraordinary press conference on Thursday, after a High Court judge in Eastern Cape deemed his actions in moving the bodies as “scandalous” and “vicious”, the appointed chief of the Mandela clan accused the other family members of acting against Nelson’s wishes.

His homestead of Mvezo, where Mandela was born, remains one of the poorest parts of South Africa, a world away from Johannesburg where his aunts mix in high society.

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.”