The Mandela family soap opera gets dirty

Nelson Mandela’s clan bickers as the 94-year-old patriarch remains in hospital

The Mandela soap opera gets dirty

Siegfried Modola/Reuters

As family feuds go, Nelson Mandela’s clan is becoming the South African version of Canada’s McCains, or America’s Jacksons, families who have played out their fractured fighting for wealth in a very messy, highly public way. The latest scandal—coming to light as a nation is transfixed by Mandela on his death bed—revolves around Mandla Mandela, his 39-year-old grandson, who until this week was chief of Mvezo, a rural village with dirt roads where the 94-year-old former president of South Africa was born.

Two years ago, Mandla exhumed the bodies of three of Mandela’s children, bringing them from Qunu, where Mandela grew up, to Mvezo, where Mandla is building a sprawling visitor centre dedicated to his grandfather. Last week, 16 members of the Mandela family, led by Mandla’s 59-year-old aunt, Makaziwe Mandela-Amuah, won a court order for the bodies to be returned to Qunu, saying Mandla moved them without permission. Mandla missed the deadline to return the bodies last Thursday, so the sheriff of the court had to force open a gate in order to relocate and rebury the remains. Following the court decision, Mandla delivered a diatribe on national television, accusing his aunt of trying to “sow divisions and destruction” in the family. He continued his rant, saying one of his brothers impregnated his wife and that another was born out of wedlock. The Pretoria News headlined the story, “Gloves off in Mandela feud.” Last Saturday, King Buleyekhaya Dalindyebo, the traditional ruler of the tribe to which the Mandelas belong, announced that Mandla had been stripped of all rank until he apologized for moving the bodies.

Unfortunately, this is just the latest episode of tawdry Mandela family news. Earlier this year, it was revealed by a local newspaper that Makaziwe and her sister, Zenani Mandela-Dlamini, were suing their father for rights to a portion of his million-dollar estate, including proceeds from his artworks. Makaziwe has also started producing a line of wines under the label, “House of Mandela.” Meanwhile, two of Mandela’s granddaughters launched a reality television show called Being Mandela, similar in tone to Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and began a clothing line called LWTF, an acronym of Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

“His caring family, as they’ve claimed, is going for money,” said Charlene Smith, one of Mandela’s authorized biographers. “Nelson Mandela’s last few years have been very lonely, he’s mostly been with staff.”

South Africans are certainly not impressed with any of the sparring or scheming of the Mandela clan. “Please, please please may we think not of ourselves. It’s like spitting in [his] face,” said retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, who fought alongside Mandela against apartheid.

Even President Jacob Zuma’s office weighed in, with spokesman Mac Maharaj saying, “It is regrettable that there is a dispute going on among family members and we’d like that dispute to be resolved as amicably and as soon as possible.”

Still, Smith, Mandela’s biographer, says that the feuding, however unpalatable, is unlikely to influence Mandela’s legacy. “The Reagan children feuded, the Thatcher children were controversial,” she says. “In the end that doesn’t impact on their legacy because their legacy is bigger than their family, thank God.”