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The death of Nelson Mandela: The next generation - first the assault charge, then the state funeral

Mandela's grandson is destined to be in the news, starting this week
  • @emilydugan

When Nelson Mandela's body is finally laid to rest in his home village a week today, it will mark not only the end of a nation's farewell to its most loved citizen, but the conclusion of a very ugly family row.

A simple burial in Qunu, the rural village where Mandela grew up in the Eastern Cape, was what he had requested in a will two decades ago. But one of his grandsons, Mandla, became so obsessed with the idea that the former president should instead be interred in his birthplace, Mvezo, that he dug up and moved the bodies of Mandela's three dead children there, to establish an alternative family burial site. The children were Makaziwe, an infant girl who died in 1948, a boy, Thembi, who died in a car crash in 1969, and Makgatho, who died of an Aids-related illness in 2005.

Mandla had even constructed a visitors' centre and guesthouse in Mvezo, which was his own village, in preparation for the expected crowds at his grandfather's grave. His decision to move the bodies from Qunu pitched Mandla against Nelson Mandela's eldest daughter Makaziwe and 15 other relatives.

The dispute, which appalled many South Africans and was dubbed the "shame of the nation", had to be solved by a court ruling this summer. Mandla's argument that under traditional law he was the patriarch of the family, and could decide on such matters when his grandfather was not available, was thrown out and the bodies were returned to their rightful home in Qunu for reburial.

This was not the first row among the wider Mandela family to be thrashed out in public, and now that its leading member has gone, it is unlikely to be the last.

Previous arguments over the South African hero's estate and image rights have also soured the family's image in the public eye. While the man affectionately known by his clan name Madiba was always statesmanlike in public, his family's conduct often descended into soap opera.

Many of the most prominent incidents have had the unfortunate whiff of greed. Only last month, two of his daughters, Makaziwe and Zenani, joined forces to try to force his lawyers and board associates to sell a series of paintings made with his handprints. The idea appeared to be to try to liquidate some of his assets more quickly, though the family says the story was spun by directors to make the family look like "money-grabbers".

Mandela had six children, three of whom are still alive. The years of sparring among his family partly dates back to resentments stemming from his three marriages, which produced his three surviving children, 17 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and four stepchildren.

Descendants of Mandela's first marriage to Evelyn Ntoko Mase, which ended in divorce in 1958 when the freedom fighter moved to live with Winnie, have often felt hard done by compared to those from his later relationship. Makgatho, his eldest surviving son from his first marriage, died seven years ago. This meant it fell to Makgatho's bolshy son Mandla to become chief of Mvezo, the birthplace of his grandfather.

Mandla's conduct since he was named as his father's successor at the head of the tribe has been anything but presidential. As well as moving around dead relatives to try to force his grandfather's burial in his own village, he came under fire late last year over accusations that he had pre-sold rights to broadcast Mandela's funeral to CNN. He and CNN both denied the deal.

The most disturbing accusation of all against the grandson has yet to be answered. It is alleged that he assaulted a teacher and pointed a gun at him after the man crashed his vehicle into a car driven by one of his guests in October.

The matter was supposed to be heard in court on Friday, but the case has been delayed following his grandfather's death. It is now scheduled for Thursday – three days before his grandfather's funeral.

After Madiba's death, it fell to his most controversial grandson to issue a statement on behalf of the family on Friday. In it, Mandla said: "All that I can do is thank God that I had a grandfather who loved and guided all of us in the family." The as yet unanswered question is what will happen to the Mandela family now that his guidance has gone.