Return to Qunu: Mandela family remains exhumed again

Battle over bodies of statesman’s children ends as they are taken back to ancestral village

South African police smashed padlocks with a pickaxe and forced their way into a compound in Eastern Cape to retrieve the buried remains of three of Nelson Mandela’s children. A trio of hearses pulled into the site belonging to the former President’s grandson, Mandla Mandela, and left with the bodies a short time later. The police action followed a court ruling in Eastern Cape province that the remains must be returned to their original burial site.

The dramatic conclusion to a grisly tug of war over the Mandela family graves has disgusted many South Africans, coming as the father of the nation is on life support in a Pretoria hospital. It is widely believed that the final resting place of Mr Mandela’s children will dictate where he himself is buried.

The 94-year-old’s controversial grandson, Mandla, has fought a bitter battle with Nelson Mandela’s eldest daughter, Makaziwe, and 15 other family members over the resting place of their relatives’ bodies. Mandla has constructed a visitor’s centre and guesthouse in his own village of Mvezo, in preparation for the crowds he expected to flock to Nelson Mandela’s grave. More than a year ago Mandla, the ANC MP and the eldest surviving male relative of Nelson Mandela, had the bodies exhumed and transported 15 miles from their burial site in Qunu to Mvezo. The deceased Mandela children are an infant girl who died in 1948, also named Makaziwe; a boy, 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 during his three marriages.

The wrangle over the graves has provided a ghoulish sideshow to vigil outside Mr Mandela’s hospital in Pretoria. South Africa’s popular Eye Witness News called the burial dispute the “Shame of the nation”.

Many ordinary South Africans, who refer to Mr Mandela by his clan name “Madiba”, are appalled at the behaviour of his family. The Mandelas have already been criticised for disagreements over his estate and arguments over the ownership of image rights. People have begun to openly speculate that the elder statesman is being kept alive while the family rows over his fate.

“They should let him rest in peace,” said Sindile Mngindwa, a community organiser in Kwazakhele township outside Port Elizabeth. “It’s all this corruption, the money is what’s keeping him alive. He’s done enough for us. He should be allowed to leave.”

South Africa’s first democratically elected president said in a will nearly 20 years ago that he wanted a simple burial in Qunu, where he grew up, but made no mention of Mvezo, where he was born but never lived.

After initially denying accusations of bodysnatching, Mandla Mandela resorted to arguing in court papers, considered today, that he was the family partriarch and could – in the event of Mr Mandela not giving written instructions – decide where the former ANC leader and his children should be buried. A court in the Eastern Cape capital of Mthatha ordered the reburial of the remains on Monday but Mandla made a counter-application which was also thrown out.

The University of South Africa’s African renaissance professor, Shadrack Gutto, said the 38-year-old Mandla had no authority under customary law to remove his relatives’ bodies as he was a chieftain in Mvezo, not in Qunu.

“Graveyards are protected under law and you cannot go exhuming bodies without having the proper permission,” Prof Gutto told local media. The row has also embarrassed the anaThembu royal family, of whom the struggle icon was a member.

“Nkosi Dalibhunga (Nelson Mandela) is a rare human being hence his family is important to all of us. If we fail to resolve these matters, we risk the world looking upon our culture, values and beliefs with disrespect and this we should not allow,” said Nkosi Thanduxolo Mtirara, a spokesperson for the royal family. The elders of the Thembu people have demanded a meeting in Qunu next Monday to resolve the dispute. “This matter has to be brought to an end.”