Feud over Mandela children’s bones ends; remains apparently carted off

A police convoy and a hearse arrive at Mvezo resort on Wednesday to collect the remains of former South African President Nelson Mandela's children.
(Carl de Souza / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images)
<i>This post has been updated. See the note below for details.</i>

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- In the end, the bitter family feud came to this: Police used a pickax to break down the gates at the home of Nelson Mandela’s grandson Wednesday in search of the bones of the elder statesman’s dead children.

A spokesman for Mandla Mandela, the grandson and a tribal chief, said he agreed Wednesday to obey a court order and allow the remains to be returned after a court found in favor of his rivals within the family. However, police had to force their way into his property in Mvezo where the bodies were believed to be buried, the reports said.

[Updated 10:14 a.m., July 3: Three hearses believed to be carrying the bones later departed Mvezo and headed toward Qunu, Nelson Mandela’s home village, where they had originally been interred.]


The feud concerned Mandela’s burial place, with the family confirming in court documents for the first time that the former South African president is on a life support machine and his death is “impending.”

The Mandela family legal battle over the remains has implications for dominance of the powerful clan -- and for control of the money the former president’s famous name generates.

At the heart is a family feud over where the ailing 94-year-old Mandela will be laid to rest -- a site that potentially could draw tourists -- since he expressed the wish to be buried next to his children.

Two years ago, Mandla Mandela secretly had the bodies dug up and moved to Mvezo, the elder Mandela’s birthplace and a resort site, without telling the family. The family checked the graves last week, found them empty and took court action to have the bodies exhumed and re-interred in Qunu.

Mandela’s eldest daughter, Makaziwe, led 14 other family members in the court application for the return of the bones. Earlier reports that 16 family members were involved overlooked the fact there was no 13th applicant listed.

Lawyers for the family told the court that the bodies were moved illegally and in the dead of night.

A spokesman for Mandla Mandela said in a statement after Wednesday’s court judgment supporting the plaintiffs that he would not block the exhumations of the bodies that afternoon.

The statement said that Mandela’s grandson would continue his legal fight against the court order. It said he never had an issue with moving the bones back to Qunu, but that he believed that the court order was invalid and should never have been issued.

Mandela had six children, three of whom survive. The dead were Makaziwe, a girl who died in infancy, after whom the eldest surviving sibling was named; Thembekile, a son who died in a car crash in 1969; and Makgato, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 2005.

The family’s court affidavit argued the bodies must be exhumed and reburied as a matter of urgency since Nelson Mandela’s health was “perilous,” according to local media.

“Nelson Mandela’s health is perilous. (An) affidavit will be provided from physicians that he is assisted in breathing by a life support machine. The anticipation of his impending death is based on real and substantial grounds. The applicants are desirous of burying their father and committing him to the earth in which his descendant’s remains lie,” the affidavit said.

It was the first confirmation that Mandela was on life-support. Earlier this week, a daughter, Zinzi, said in a television interview that Mandela was getting oxygen via a mask and had intravenous drips but scoffed at reports that the family was considering switching off life-support equipment and letting Mandela go. She said Mandela was responding and that he opened his eyes when people entered the room.

“When people say the family must let go, we say, ‘Let go of what?’ In fact he is deciding what is happening with himself. It’s between him and his maker. It has nothing to do with us whatsoever,” she said in the television interview. She was among the 15 applicants listed on the family affidavit.

The family affidavit accused Mandla Mandela of trying to overturn his grandfather’s wishes to be buried in Qunu and accused him of being motivated by hopes that Mandela’s gravesite would be a cash cow.

“It is conceivable that such a heritage site has the potential to generate monetary gain. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that the first respondent has already begun preparations at the Great Place in Mvezo, inclusive of construction buildings,” the affidavit said, referring to a tourist resort being built by Mandla Mandela who is the chief of the Mandelas’ abaThembu clan. (The Great Place is the chief’s residence.)

“The applicants [Mandela family], as custodians of the last will and testament of Nelson Mandela, will have duties to ensure his last wishes are carried out in the event of his demise.”

Wednesday’s statement from Mandla Mandela’s spokesman complained Mandela’s grandson had “a lot of allegations and dirt thrown in his direction by all sorts of individuals baying for a few minutes of fame and media attention at his expense.” He said Mandla Mandela would hold a press conference Thursday to clear his name.

Nelson Mandela was admitted to the hospital June 8 with a recurrence of a lung infection. Last week President Jacob Zuma announced his condition had deteriorated and had become critical. Zuma’s office later in the week announced that Mandela’s condition had improved but that he remained critical and stable -- a report repeated in the most recent statement Monday.


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