MTHATHA, South Africa: As Nelson Mandela fights for his life in hospital, his relatives are pitted against each other in a legal battle, reportedly over where members of the family should be buried.
On Friday, 16 members of the Mandela family brought an urgent application to a regional court, reportedly to force Mandela’s grandson Mandla to return remains of family members to a plot in the ancestral village where Mandela has said he wants to be buried.
Mandla, a local chief in nearby Mvezo, had exhumed the remains of three of Mandela’s children in Qunu in 2011 and brought them to his village, allegedly without the consent of the rest of the family.
“I have been instructed by the 16 family members including (daughters) Makaziwe and Zindzi to take action against Mandla,” the family lawyer Wesley Heyes said.
Heyes refused to comment on the reason for the legal tussle, but local media said it was about a long-running feud over the remains.
“We can’t say anything further due to the sensitivity of the case,” said Heyes.
The court was told that a sheriff delivered the paper to Mandla’s homestead and found the gates locked. The papers were nailed to the gate after several unsuccessful attempts to hand them over.
“The sheriff hooted and called Mandla on his phone, which was not answered,” said one of the Mandela lawyers David Smith.
Mandla’s spokesman Freddy Pilusa said he was not able to comment on the case.
“He hasn’t been served with those papers so he wouldn’t be able to comment.”
The controversial removal of graves has recently come into the spotlight following reported family squabbles over the final resting place of the ailing Mandela.
The hastily removed graves belonged to Mandela’s eldest son Thembekile who died in 1969, his nine-month-old infant Makaziwe who passed away in 1948, and Mandla’s own father Magkatho who died from an AIDS related illness in 2005.
The trio were reburied under the cover of darkness in Mvezo, in a ceremony overseen by Mandla.
The issue of the graves was also at the center of a family meeting earlier this week.
On Thursday local media reported that Makaziwe, Mandela’s oldest daughter, was granted permission by a chief in Qunu to have the remains repatriated. Mandla had reportedly argued Mandela should be buried in Mvezo.
Mandela’s close family huddled at his rural homestead to discuss the failing health of the South African anti-apartheid icon who was fighting for his life in hospital.
Messages of support poured in from around the world for the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who spent 27 years behind bars for his struggle under white minority rule and went on to become South Africa’s first black president.
Mandela remained in a critical condition as the week drew to a close, the South African presidency said.
“We must keep him in our prayers and leave the rest to the Almighty to decide on,” Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said.
Family members including one of Mandela’s daughters and at least two grandchildren were seen gathering for a meeting in the village of Qunu, where the charismatic former leader spent his childhood tending cattle and living in mud-walled huts.
The meeting was called “to discuss delicate matters”, according to South Africa’s SAPA news agency, amid speculation that the location of his possible gravesite was on the agenda.
Tensions emerged between elder clan members and Mandela grandchildren during the talks, according to sources close to the family, although it was unclear exactly why.
The 94-year-old’s condition appeared to take a significant turn for the worse over the weekend with the presidency announcing on Sunday that he was “critical”.
Flowers and messages of support piled up outside the Pretoria hospital where Mandela was admitted on June 8 with a recurring lung problem dating back to his time at the windswept Robben Island prison camp near Cape Town.
“He is a man who changed the world,” said Vusi Mzimanda, who was among the well-wishers.
“He brings hope to everyone,” he said. “I just hope that he will get better and come to us. We don’t want to lose him even though we know it’s late.”
Supporters sang songs for the former president and released 100 white doves outside the hospital.
Some 36 trainee police officers laid flowers.
“The flowers, that’s the only way we can show our appreciation to our former president,” said Brigadier Noma Binuele.
Relatives have been coming to Mandela’s bedside each day as doctors battle to save the moral icon, who was once considered a terrorist by the United States and Britain for his support of violence against the apartheid regime.
Ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela—herself a figurehead of the anti-apartheid struggle—and his grandchildren visited the hospital on Tuesday.
Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba was also among the visitors, although his aides declined to comment on the reason.
President Jacob Zuma called on South Africans to respect the Mandela family’s “dignity and privacy”.
“We must demonstrate our love and appreciation for his leadership during the struggle for liberation and in our first few years of freedom and democracy by living out his legacy and promoting unity, non-racialism, non-sexism and prosperity in our country,” Zuma said in a statement.
Messages of goodwill also flooded in from overseas.
Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai described the iconic figure as “an inspiration”.
The White House said it was monitoring Mandela’s condition but could not yet say whether his ill health would affect a planned visit by US President Barack Obama to South Africa from Friday as part of a tour of Africa.
In any case, Obama is unlikely to see Mandela as he is “indisposed”, South Africa’s international relations minister Maite Nkoane Mashebane said.
The South African government has been criticized following revelations that the military ambulance that carried Mandela to hospital developed engine trouble, resulting in a 40-minute delay until a replacement vehicle arrived.
The presidency said Mandela suffered no harm during the wait for another ambulance to take him from his Johannesburg home to a specialist heart clinic in Pretoria 55 kilometers away.