It is Nelson Mandela’s wish — to be buried in a family plot, with his children, in the rolling rural hills of the Eastern Cape. In Qunu, South Africa, the village where he grew up and where he retired until ill health forced him back to Johannesburg.
But while 94-year-old Mandela struggles in hospital for a 25th day, his family battles over his children’s bones; a bizarre and unseemly family feud.
It began when Mandela’s grandson and heir, Mandla, secretly exhumed the remains of three of Nelson’s children who predeceased him. Mandla allegedly had them moved and reburied in Mveso, a nearby town, where he is the chief and where he is building a multi-million dollar hotel development.
Last week, the Mandela family confronted Mandla, demanding he return the remains to Qunu; he refused. That set off an ugly, public spat which is playing out in the press and has ended up in a South African court.
On Tuesday, a judge ruled Mandla must return the remains by Wednesday afternoon.
Meanwhile, police opened a criminal case against Mandla for grave tampering over the exhumation of the three bodies.
"A case is opened at the police station and we will now investigate that case," said police Lt. Col. Mzukisi Fatyela. He declined to reveal who pressed the charges.
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At issue is power and profit. Already some in Mandela’s vast family have argued over his estate.
“Nelson Mandela is a massive global icon, we can't expect his family to be the same, said Justice Malala a political columnist.
“All sorts of things are coming out..all sorts of battles are playing themselves out for his name for parts of his wealth. I find the whole battle what’s playing out in the courts is just undignified..totally undignified”.
The fight highlights the confluence of traditional and modern cultures for many in South Africa. Mandela is from the Xhosa tribe. Some of the elders now worry the grave dispute will prevent Mandela from going in peace, no matter when he passes on.
“Let us approach this pending death in a dignified way, in a peaceful way”, said Sibongile Yawa, a psychologist who studies bereavement in the Xhosa, Tswana and Zulu cultures.
“If we don’t show harmony, those who are one hundred percent traditionalist will believe that we will cause the wrath of the ancestors”.
Last week, a group of elders went to the Mandela plot to appease the ancestral spirits. This is not the epitaph, however premature, Nelson Mandela would ever want.