Mandela vs. Mandela: Soap opera morphs into theatre of the absurd
Mandla Mandela has become the veritable JR Ewing of the Mandela family – the protagonist around whom the plot pivots, the villain who turns family fights into epic battles and the anti-hero who everyone loves to hate. Even Hollywood could not have scripted the latest bizarre fallout in the Mandela family, which the nation is watching incredulously. The tawdry saga might have been comical had it not been a tragic sideshow to the continued hospitalisation of Nelson Mandela – the man whose greatness created the theatre for Mandla and the rest of the Mandela cast to star in the farce over his burial site. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Between the factional battles in the African National Congress and the omnipresent tensions in the Mandela family, there was always a danger that Nelson Mandela’s final send-off might become a fiasco. While his status as a former president ensures that the State is responsible for his healthcare and eventually his funeral, the conflicts in his organisation, the ANC, and within his family set the stage for spats over who has claim to him and his legacy, once Mandela passes.
But it could never have been imagined that while the beloved elder statesman lies critically ill in hospital, a family drama of epic proportions would be playing out in a courtroom, creating a spectacle in front of a worried nation and the ravenous international media horde.
The Mandela family has all the elements on which soap operas are built – a towering patriarch whom the world adores, marriages to beautiful, strong-willed women, grandchildren with colourful, impulsive personalities and contestation for dominance and wealth. Since his release from prison, Mandela’s family life has shared the spotlight with his political life. His heartbreak and tragic divorce from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and fairy-tale romance with Graca Machel all shaped his public character.
But what is happening now in the Mandela family has made the high drama of the famous television dynasties of the Ewings and the Forresters come to life, minus the glamour and chipping away at the Mandela patriarch's proud political legacy.
Several members of the Mandela family have used their famous surname to advance in business or to claim pseudo-celebrity status – the most tasteless of which is a Kardashian-style reality television series starring two Mandela granddaughters, Zaziwe Dlamini-Manaway and Swati Dlamini.
Photo: Mandla Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela, sings during a church service near the home of the former president in Qunu June 30, 2013. REUTERS/Rogan Ward
Mandla Mandela, who became chief of the Mandela clan after the death of his father Makgatho, is the only member of the family who followed in the footsteps of his legendary grandfather and ventured into politics. He is a Member of Parliament for the ANC, having graduated with a degree in politics from Rhodes University.
Mandla is also the main character of a running drama in the Mandela family, from a bitter divorce battle, marriages to young brides contested by his first wife, to a paternity row in which he accused one of his brothers of fathering the baby boy his wife Anais Grimaud gave birth to in 2011. But while Mandla is no doubt the star of the show, his aunts have also generously contributed to the tragicomedy of the Mandela family.
Makaziwe and Zenani Mandela stunned the country earlier this year when they filed court papers to sue their father for the rights of his artworks and control of his riches. The sisters filed papers in the Johannesburg High Court asking for an order instructing Mandela’s lawyer Bally Chuene, his trusted friend advocate George Bizos and Minister of Human Settlements Tokyo Sexwale to remove themselves as trustees and directors of the Mandela Trust. Despite reports that the case might be settled out of court, this matter is still pending.
But nothing that has happened before can match the battle now playing out between Mandla and Makaziwe Mandela over the remains of three of Nelson Mandela’s deceased children, Makgatho, Thembekile and Makaziwe, who died when she was an infant. In 2011, Mandla had exhumed their remains from a burial ground at the family home in Qunu and reburied them at Mvezo, where he reigns as traditional chief.
After a family meeting at Qunu last week, 16 members of the Mandela family, led by Makaziwe, applied to the Mthatha High Court to force Mandla to return the remains to their original resting place. The group were granted an interim order to have the remains returned to Qunu but Mandla’s legal team argued that he had not been properly served with papers and that he should be given sufficient time to comply.
Judge Lusindiso Pakade ruled on Tuesday that the deadline for the interim order be amended to 3pm on Wednesday and for the two sides to also file heads of argument. While this court battle was unfolding, Eastern Cape police said criminal charges had been laid at the Bityi police station against Mandla for tampering with the graves. It is not yet known who laid the charges.
To add to the drama, media reports have alleged that Mandla’s chieftaincy could be challenged by members of his family because he is an illegitimate child. The Mail & Guardian reported that although the Mandela family originally supported Mandla when he volunteered to be chief in 2007 because no one else was keen, the family now realises his chieftaincy was a mistake. The paper’s website quoted an unnamed elder as saying that Mandla’s mother gave birth to him out of wedlock and that Xhosa culture dictates that an illegitimate child has no claim over chieftaincy.
It is not known how and when the rest of the family plans to depose Mandla. Tensions have become so bad that the rest of the Mandelas are planning to ensure that Mandla is entirely excluded from Madiba’s funeral when the elderly statesman dies, according to a report in City Press. “It’s a power struggle. They want Mandla stripped of all the power he wields because he has clearly abused it. He has betrayed his family’s trust,” the report quoted a source connected to the family as saying.
Irrespective of how the court battle turns out, it is clear that the Mandela family feud will only get worse, and that this is only a taster of the epic battle that will still play out over the elder statesman’s estate. It is also obvious that due to cultural sensitivities and temperaments in that family, nobody will dare to intervene or try to broker a settlement.
On Tuesday, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe urged the family to reconcile as a sign of respect to their sick elder. “They need to take a chapter out of Madiba's life and learn how to find peace against all odds… The family must look at Mandela and see that he was a unifier. They must reconcile. They must talk to each other and find a common goal,” Mantashe told the media during an ANC prayer service outside the party headquarters in Johannesburg.
One of the ironies of Mandela’s legendary life is that his progeny bear so little of his character and qualities, and instead represent everything contrary to the selfless life he led. The court battle is no doubt to settle where Mandela would be laid to rest, as most of his family want to comply with his wish to be buried at Qunu, alongside his children, while Mandla is determined to preside over the money-spinner that his grandfather’s tomb will deliver. The way they are all going about it shows utter contempt for Mandela’s legacy and disrespect considering his current condition in hospital.
If this matter is not resolved before Mandela passes on, it will cause his great life to end in indignity. Nobody deserves such dishonour and certainly not the man who dedicated his life to fight for human dignity. It is a great tragedy that this is lost on the people who carry his name and his bloodline, and those on whom he is dependent for finding his final resting place. DM
Photo: Former South African President Nelson Mandela's daughter Makaziwe Mandela listens to proceedings during a court case concerning the removal of the remains of three of the ailing anti-apartheid hero's children, in the High Court of Mthatha in the Eastern Cape of South Africa July 2, 2013. Sixteen members of the Mandela family have already won a court order forcing Nelson Mandela's grandson Mandla Mandela - officially chief of the Mandela clan - to return the bodies that he dug up two years ago from the village of Qunu, where Nelson Mandela grew up. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola