JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — As a boy, Mandla Mandela wanted nothing more than to be a disc jockey in the city. But his grandfather, former South African President Nelson Mandela, picked him to live in the rolling hills of Eastern Cape as leader of the family and chief of its clan.
It's a family now engulfed by an acrimonious feud, even as the elder statesman lies critically ill in a hospital.
The bitterness spilled out Thursday as Mandla Mandela accused a half-brother, Mbuso, of impregnating Mandla's wife, called another brother, Nbada, illegitimate and said Nelson Mandela's oldest daughter, Makaziwe, was sowing “divisions and destruction” in the family.
His assertions followed accusations earlier in the week by Ndaba Mandela that Mandla was illegitimate, in an apparent effort to topple him as chief as the family battles over the future of the famous Mandela name – and the money it might generate.
“I do not want to hang out our dirty linen as a family in public,” Mandla Mandela said at a news conference, before he proceeded to do just that. “But he [Ndaba] knows very well that my father impregnated a married woman, of which he is the result of that act. So he should be very careful when he wants to throw insults, particularly to my mother who still sits by my side and ensures that I am able to wake up every day to serve my community.”
Mandla Mandela, chief of the AbaThembu clan, lost a court battle Wednesday to other family members, forcing him to surrender the bones of his father and his father's siblings -- Nelson Mandela's three dead children. Makaziwe Mandela-Amuah and other family members accused the chief of stealing the bones from the former president’s home village of Qunu and reburying them at his homestead at Mvezo to ensure that Nelson Mandela eventually would be buried there.
Mandla Mandela's allegations came as the office of South African President Jacob Zuma announced that Nelson Mandela remained in a critical but stable condition in a Pretoria hospital where he was admitted June 8 with a lung infection.
The family has offered contradictory accounts of the former president's condition. His wife, Graca Machel, described him Thursday as generally fine. “Madiba is sometimes uncomfortable. Sometimes he is in pain. But he is fine,” she said, referring to him by his clan name.
However, a news report surfaced Thursday that the Mandela family had been advised by doctors to switch off his respirator.
This formed part of a submission by Makaziwe Mandela-Amuah and other family members in their court battle against Mandla Mandela over the return of family bones, according to the report
“The family has been advised by the medical practitioners that his life support machine should be switched off. Rather than prolonging his suffering, the Mandela family is exploring this option as a very real probability,” the family's court affidavit said, according to the report.
The report, however, was dated June 26. The following day, family members and Zuma’s office reported the former president’s health had improved.
Under traditional African law, which is protected by South Africa's constitution, Mandla Mandela is supposed to reign supreme in his family, responsible for such matters as marriages, land issues and burials. But South Africa's Western-based legal system and traditional African law are often at odds.
So he was confused and angry to be dragged to High Court on Friday by family members who under customary law should answer to him. When his lawyers tried to argue his rights under customary law, the judge dismissed the arguments as irrelevant.
On Thursday, Mandla Mandela denied he had taken the bones illegally, insisting he had adhered to African cultural practice. “I took the remains and temporarily kept them ... in Mvezo until we gain knowledge of what my grandfather’s wishes are or that of his spouse,” he told the news conference.
The bones were reburied Thursday in Qunu, paving the way for the former president to be buried there in future.
Phatekile Holomisa, head of the Council of Traditional Leaders of South Africa, said that if there was no clear instruction in Nelson Mandela's will on where he should be buried, and there was a feud in the family, it was up to all family elders to meet and resolve the issue.
On major decisions, Mandla “has to consult people like his aunt Makaziwe, the leader of all the girls in the community, before he can implement his decisions. They ought to listen to each other,” Holomisa said. “But ultimately the final word rests with Mandla.”
Holomisa was critical of Makaziwe Mandela-Amuah and other family members for rushing to the High Court: “On the face of it, she has undermined the elders in her family. Those are Western courts. They don't understand our customs.”
In a pitch that appealed to South Africa's many traditionalists, Mandla Mandela presented himself Thursday as a reluctant chief who gave up his dreams to be a deejay -- and a successful business -- on his grandfather's instructions that he reluctantly become leader of the family.
“I recall the final moment when he invited me for lunch after I’d tried many times to put up my case that I was very independent and very successful as a businessman,” he said. “He felt it necessary to usher me back home because he had realized that the life I led in Johannesburg was that of an individual and not that of service to our people.”
He charged that some people involved in the court actions over the family bones and a previous attempt to get control over several family trust funds were not even Mandelas, he said.
“Everyone wants to be a Mandela. Individuals have abandoned their own families and heritage and decided to jump on the Mandela wagon,” he said. “We need to be clear who are members of this family. We need to be clear when we convene family meetings who sits in these family meetings.”