MTHATHA, South Africa (Reuters) - A dispute between factions of Nelson Mandela’s family over where the family grave should be went to court on Friday when his eldest daughter and more than a dozen other relatives sought an injunction against Mandela’s grandson, Mandla.
With the 94-year-old in critical condition in hospital, the state broadcaster SABC said a court in Mthatha had ordered Mandla to return the remains of three of Mandela’s children from the village of Mvezo, where the anti-apartheid icon was born and where Mandla is now an influential tribal chief, to Qunu, the village 20 km (13 miles) away where Mandela spent most of his childhood.
The three bodies were taken from the Mandela family cemetery in Qunu in the Eastern Cape two years ago and reburied in Mvezo, where Mandla, 39, has built a memorial center that many have interpreted as an attempt to ensure Mandela is buried there.
Local media have reported that the exhumations took place at the behest of Mandla - officially the clan patriarch after the death of his father, Makgatho, in 2005 - and without the consent of other family members including Mandela’s eldest daughter Makaziwe, who wants her father buried in Qunu.
Mandela has never given detailed instructions for his burial but his wills have expressed a general desire to be laid to rest in Qunu, 700 km south of Johannesburg, the Mail and Guardian newspaper reported on Friday.
The spat between the Makaziwe-led Qunu faction and Mandla, an African National Congress (ANC) member of parliament, has been brewing for months.
Lawyer Wesley Hayes, representing Makaziwe and 15 other relatives, confirmed to Reuters that papers had been filed in the Mthatha regional court against Mandla but refused to disclose details “because of the sensitivity of the case”.
The court was not available to give details of its ruling.
However, a legal source who declined to be named said a sheriff had been to Mandla’s house and attached a court order ordering the exhumations to the gate after failing to gain access. Mandla spokesman Freddy Pilusa denied that any order had been received.
“He hasn’t been served with any papers so he is not in a position to offer any comment,” Pilusa told Reuters.
The grave dispute is one of several fights between factions of the family and South African businesses and politicians over who owns the name and image of one of most respected figures of the 20th century.
Makaziwe and another daughter, Zenani, are locked in a legal tussle with George Bizos, the lawyer who defended Mandela at his 1963-64 treason trial, over control of revenues from the sale of Mandela hand prints and other branded goods.
The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, the official guardian of his name, is also embroiled in a commercial battle over the selling of clothing under its ‘46664’ label, named after the number Mandela was given during his 27 years in prison.
Set up in 2002 as an HIV/AIDS charity, ‘46664’ sells everything from Mandela shirts and wristbands to mobile phone starter packs, all protected by a license that “guards against the commercialization of Mr. Mandela’s name and image”.
The wish to bask in the reflected glory of Madiba, as Mandela is known locally, also creates political tensions.
Last year, his ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela accused the ruling African National Congress (ANC) of “shabby treatment” of the family, wheeling them out only “when we have to be used for some agenda”.
The grave dispute also reflects the pressure on the family as it, and millions of people in South Africa and around the world, prepare to say farewell to a man lauded as an icon of racial reconciliation and triumph over oppression.
On Thursday, Makaziwe likened the hordes of foreign media outside the Pretoria hospital to “vultures” circling the carcass of a dead buffalo.
The three Mandela children buried in Mvezo are an infant daughter who died in 1948, a son, Thembi, who died in a car crash in 1969, and Makgatho, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 2005. In all, Mandela fathered six children from his three marriages.
Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Kevin Liffey