Nelson Mandela's family feud over graves

Mandela family graveyard, Qunu, Eastern Cape

While Nelson Mandela is fighting for his life in a Pretoria hospital, members of his family are fighting each other, in a feud which is being played out in lurid details in the local media.

Several family members took his eldest grandson, Mandla, to court to exhume three of the former president's children, for reburial in the family graveyard in Qunu, where Mr Mandela wants to be laid to rest.

And the battle over the exhumations is a sign of much deeper divisions within Mr Mandela's large and complex family. Following three marriages and two divorces, he had six children, 17 grandchildren and 12 surviving great-grandchildren.

According to some elders from his clan, while his family is at war, his spirit cannot be at peace.

Deep symbolism

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Some members believe that Mr Mandela's recurrent illness is a message from the ancestors”

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Sixteen members of the Mandela family and local chiefs won a case in the Mthatha High Court on 3 July to exhume the remains and return them to Qunu, where Mr Mandela's home is located.

Mandla had moved them in 2011 to his homestead in Mvezo, 22km (14 miles) from Qunu.

The remains are of Makgatho Mandela, Mandla's father who died from Aids-related diseases in 2005 and his siblings, Thembekile, who was killed in a car accident in 1969, and Makaziwe, his first daughter who died when she was nine months old.

The three were apparently exhumed without consulting the rest of the Mandela family and the elders of the AbaThembu royal house, into which Mr Mandela was born.

Mandla Mandela As Nelson Mandela's oldest male heir, Mandla was made a local chief

While this may seem obscure and complicated to outsiders, it carries deep symbolism to South Africans.

Disturbing the dead is considered a bad omen in traditional culture.

A battle for power?

Some relatives and elders believe that Mr Mandela's recurrent illness is a message from the ancestors, a sign that they are unhappy with Mandla.

Nelson Mandela's children

With Evelyn Mase:

  • Thembekile born 1945, died 1969
  • Makaziwe born 1947, died aged nine months
  • Makgatho born 1950, died 2005
  • Makaziwe, born 1954

With Winnie Madikizela-Mandela:

  • Zenani born 1959
  • Zindziswa born 1960

They believe Mr Mandela's spirit is troubled by the feuds in his family and that is why he is not "letting go".

There were 16 applicants in the exhumation case, including Mr Mandela's wife Graca Machel, his daughter Makaziwe and senior members of the AbaThembu clan.

Underlying this dispute, and others, is the question: "Who will replace Mr Mandela as head of the family?"

As his oldest male heir, the former South African president nominated Mandla as chief Zwelivelile of the Thembu people, to succeed his father. He is also an MP with the governing African National Congress (ANC).

But many within the family are becoming increasingly unhappy with him, including Makaziwe, who is the oldest of Mr Mandela's surviving children and named after the baby who died.

His plans to open a heritage centre in Mvezo, in the estate where the graves are at the moment, have left a bitter taste in the mouths of many within the family.

Mvezo heritage site Mandla Mandela is building a centre dedicated to his grandfather

In a separate dispute over Mr Mandela's legacy, his daughters Makaziwe and Zenani have gone to court in a bid to oust three of his aides from Mr Mandela's companies.

The two want control over the companies said to be worth millions of dollars.

Unfinished business

Makaziwe had convened an urgent "ibhunga" - traditional meeting - in which Mandla was apparently chastised by family elders for moving the remains of his relatives to begin with.

Makaziwe Mandela Makaziwe is Nelson Mandela's oldest living child

He has been at odds with his family since, the BBC understands.

Some believe the ailing family head needs to see this matter resolved before he can be at peace.

According to "isintu" - traditional South African culture - one of the reasons a person fights death is because they have "unfinished business".

Some believe that Mr Mandela's "unfinished business" is unifying his divided family the same way he united black and white South Africans after ending apartheid in 1994.

According to local culture, Mandla and his relatives will need to make peace before the bodies are exhumed.

The AbaThembu royal house has convened a meeting on 8 July in Qunu to try and resolve the matter, the Sapa news agency reports.

One of Mr Mandela's greatest personal pains was not seeing his children grow up - because he dedicated his life to politics and spent 27 years in prison for his opposition to white minority rule.

So while he could not be with them for most of his lifetime, his family wants to make sure that they are at least together for eternity.

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