The Mandela Family Feud: What Will It Mean for His Legacy?

He was hugely effective at bridging South Africa's divisions between traditionalism and modernity, but his relatives are now making these rifts worse.
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Mandla Mandela, at far right, follows his grandfather and former South African President Nelson Mandela in Mvezo. (AP)

"Now, I can die in peace." That's what Nelson Mandela said back in 2007, when his eldest grandson, Mandla, was consecrated as nkosi, or head man, of the village of Mvezo, where the elder Mandela was born in 1918. Standing on a windswept bluff, I remember how frail Mandela looked even then, six years ago, how the wind batted him from side to side as he walked to the podium.

He stubbornly insisted upon walking unaided across uneven ground and, struggling to stay upright on his own onstage, told the story of his grandson's acceptance of a role as traditional leader. Mandela looked triumphant on that day, as he described how his own father had been pushed out of the village by a British magistrate three generations ago.

Now the role had been returned to stewardship of the family, and he presented the news as though it was the closing of a circle for himself, too. When he said he could die in peace, there was a hush and darting looks among his listeners in the village because nobody wanted to hear it. Six years ago, it was much harder to imagine a new South Africa without him.

In the intervening years, there has been little peace in Mvezo. And in the last two weeks, in particular, a brutal inter-family skirmish brought to the surface longstanding differences between the nkosiof Mvezo and much of the rest of his family. As Mandela lay in a hospital bed, near death, during the past month, there's been a national discussion underway about his legacy and the significance of his passing for South African politics and culture.

That discussion, including the schism within the family, underscored how many disparate parts of the national character Mandela had managed to bridge. He'd famously grown up in the rural Transkei, royalty among amaThembu people, but moved to Johannesburg, that hybridizing Afropolitan center, in his 20s. As a lawyer, guerrilla leader, and longtime prisoner, incarcerated for 27 years during middle age, he maintained a certain respect for rural traditions.

He's celebrated as Tata Mandela, or grandfather, by rural villagers with little education and bling-bling city dwellers alike. Unlike many of his successors, he's seen as a leader who represented both the amaqaba, or uneducated rural residents, and the amagqoboka, Christian sophisticates. Rooted in the story of Mandla Mandela's ascension as chief of Mveso is the deep history of rural/urban difference in South Africa. As his grandson told me at the time, the next important political struggles in the country may come in fights along these divisive lines.

The Backdrop:

Nelson Mandela was the country bumpkin made good, running away from his rural home as a teenager to become a lawyer in the big city and, later, one of the world's most famous guerrilla leaders and most lionized political prisoners. After 27 years of incarceration, he was freed in 1990 and, in 1994, elected leader of one of the globe's newest democracies, South Africa. After a single term, he stepped down in a seamless transition of power, but he has remained a father figure for the nation.

The narrative arc of Mandela's life marked the expected normal trajectory of any South African's life: migration from poor rural areas, where people were mostly uneducated, to the hybridized cosmopolitan culture of a city like Johannesburg. That's why it caused such a sensation when, in 2007, his eldest grandson, Mandlasizwe Mandela, made the reverse migration, from urban center to a life in the sticks. In the midst of high unemployment and rampant crime, the cities no longer necessarily represent the "better life for all" promised to South Africans by the governing party, Nelson Mandela's party, the African National Congress.

The younger Mandela was raised in Soweto, a sprawling slum at the edges of rapidly modernizing Johannesburg. He studied for a master's degree at one of South Africa's most distinguished universities. When he and his young wife arrived in Mvezo, where the elder Mandela had spent his earliest years, Mandla Mandela took up the post of nkosi, or head man of the Traditional Council. In the process, the newly minted chief placed a spotlight on one of the central contradictions papered at the founding of the new nation -- the guarantee of one person, one vote in a nonracial and nonsexist country up against the privileges of unchecked, regal authority still exercised by appointed traditional leaders. (This article was drawn from a chapter of After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa), which The Atlantic originally excerpted in 2012.)

In the Village:

It was a long drive, on perhaps the worst road in the country, to reach the village when I went to Mvezo for the first time, to watch Nelson Mandela's grandson consecrated as traditional leader. Around the country, people were migrating from the most underdeveloped, poverty-stricken rural areas in the direction of the cities. Still, for the majority of Mandela's countrymen, life as it unfolded in Cape Town or Johannesburg was still as remote as the mischief caused by the upscale characters on installments of the soap operas Generations and Isidingo.

Hills rounded like half moons rolled on to the horizon. The Mbashe River threaded lazy curlicues in clefts between the hills. On the day before the Mandela celebration, I had attended a lavish birthday party in honor of Jacob Zuma at the International Convention Centre in Durban. By then, Zuma had already mounted the challenge to then-President Thabo Mbeki that would split the ANC, lead to the ouster of a sitting president, and result in Zuma's election as president of the country in 2009 on a platform that emphasized the importance of rural development. At the International Convention Center it was smooth marble floors, cavernous expanses, bright lights, with the new business and government elite arrayed in all their finery; here it was dust, grit, tattered clothes, and the fresh air of the country.

Sharp twists and turns led to precipitous climbs before I reached the stark beauty of the so-called Great Place. Undulating lines of people, the just-risen sun at their backs, had begun walking early, streaming toward the village in hopes of catching a glimpse of their best-known native son. More than 70 years had passed since Nelson Mandela's father, headman of the Traditional Council of Mvezo, had been summarily dismissed by a British colonial magistrate. The post of village chief had remained empty through the intervening years, according to the amaThembu king I consulted, who said that the people of the village had refused appointment of anyone but a Mandela. Here, the propriety of inherited leadership still prevailed.

The younger boys considered the apartheid period as something remote and strange, like ancient history.

This dismissal of Henry Gadla Mandela in the late 1920s was presented in Nelson Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, as a stark lesson in colonial oppression. Mandela writes that his father, summoned by the magistrate, refused to bow to British rule, supposedly sending back this reply in isiXhosa: "Andiza ndisaqula" -- I will not come, I am girding for battle. The historical record produced a more complicated version of the story, including allegations that Chief Henry Mandela had made illegal sales of land along the river. In either case, ever since Nelson Mandela was released from custody in 1990, hopes flared periodically among the villagers that he would accept his father's inheritance and lead the council. Nelson Mandela had been requisitioned to run the ANC and the country instead, however.

Hope flickered among the villagers again when Nelson Mandela stepped down as president in 1999, but he demurred that he was too old to take up the post. Next in line by customary law would have been his eldest son. But that son, Thembi, had died in a car accident while Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, and the next son, Makgotho, lost his life from complications related to AIDS in the early days of 2005. So the line of male inheritance was forced to skip a generation. Now, Mandlasizwe -- Makgotho's eldest son, Nelson's eldest grandson -- agreed to be wrapped in the skin of a lion.

Here was the sign of a curious reverse migration to the one Nelson Mandela had made, from rural life to city lawyer to revolutionary hero. The prospective traditional leader wasn't the only city dweller returning to rural homelands out of disappointment with the realities of cosmopolitan life. Though the predominant flow of movement within the country was toward the cities, a small number of people were coming back after they experienced terrible reverses in their lives -- joblessness, illness, and victimization from crime -- while in the big city.

Mandlasizwe, or Mandla, had grown up in Soweto and he had studied for a master's degree in political science from Rhodes University. He had budding business interests in China and the Middle East. Like his sister and brothers, Mandla was essentially a person shaped by Joburg's vibe, a cosmopolitan man. Still, he had decided to return to his grandfather's birthplace to assume a conservative, traditional role. In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela described Mvezo as "a place apart, a tiny precinct removed from the world of events, where life was lived much as it had been for hundreds of years." Mandla, I soon learned, had arrived back at the family homestead with plenty of ideas about how the village would need to change.

A fierce wind blew through the gorges, rocking my car. I had stopped a few miles off the highway, and now the car was crammed with four old women in traditional dress and half-a-dozen children. It was so crowded that I could scarcely manage steering. Shifting gears was out of the question, so we trundled on in second. The women's cheeks were dusted with reddish mud, a sign they were amaqaba, or Xhosa-speaking traditionalists. Pointing in the direction of the arriving amagqoboka, the civilized ones, my passengers laughed behind cupped hands.

Luxury sedans careened past us, lickety-split up the hill. Around the bend, a BMW 4x4 was parked akimbo at the side of the road, with two tires blown out. A little farther on, a brilliantly polished Mercedes revealed a popped hood and a plume of steam. The women murmured happily at the sight of the fancy car boiling over and the man in the fancy suit who had lurched out of the driver's seat to wave his arms madly over the engine.

At the end of the road, on the overlook at Mvezo, canvas tents had been set up to shield people from an unrelenting sun. In the middle of the clearing was a square platform adorned with lion and leopard skins. Lurking beside it were stick-thin dogs with whiplike tails. Suddenly an army helicopter swooped past, landing on the top of a nearby ridge. When an oversized 4x4 pulled up, Nelson Mandela was visible in a passenger seat, with his face, fixed in a whimsical grin, pressed to the window. His grandsons -- Mandla, the man to be honored on this day, and his younger brother, Ndaba -- helped both their grandfather and his wife, Graça Machel, from the car.

The young men were shirtless and garbed in traditional robes, with beaded bands around their heads and at their ankles. They followed the elders into the tent that had been raised for them. A terrible wind kicked up, the dogs started yapping, and people stood to cheer for the father of their nation. Since the generator trucked in by the ceremony's producers had short-circuited, the sound system was also kaput. Only those of us standing right next to the stage could hear a series of speeches from struggle veterans and traditional leaders that opened the celebration.

When Mandla was summoned forward, he looked wide-eyed. Thembu King Dalindyebo, a wiry, hyped-up middle-aged man with rows of beads around his neck, placed the lion skin across the young man's back. A cluster of old men, religious leaders and royalty, placed their hands over the lion to consecrate Mandla Mandela's ascendancy. After the blessing was done, women in the crowd ululated in celebration. The brothers danced in the midst of a troupe of bare-breasted young women. Graça Machel joined them, taking the hand of Mandla's wife and leading her through the paces that had been, until this moment, intended only for the men.

Finally, it was time for the elder Mandela to speak. He was helped to his feet, but he insisted on walking under his own power to the stage. Mandela mounted the steps upright, wobbling all the way. As he passed by, you could see how frail he had become, at 88. Wind battered him from one side, and he headed in that direction, then it whipped at him from the other side and he faltered to the right. He grinned into the gusts as he saluted the new nkosi of the Mvezo Traditional Council. Then Mandela murmured something in isiXhosa. His comment drew a shocked hush, followed by a sharp intake of breath from the people around me. "What did he say?" I asked a journalist standing next to me. "Now I can die in peace," he said, sounding stunned.

When the elder Mandela finished his remarks, he and Graça Machel greeted old-timers in the VIP tent while younger guests mounted the platform to approach the new chief on their knees. It was a gesture of intergenerational obeisance to traditional authority. After the formal ceremony was over I had followed the Mandela brothers down to an overlook near where their grandfather was born. Past a rocky ravine you could see stretches of fertile land lying fallow. That's when I noticed the image of a lion tattooed smack-dab in the middle of Ndaba Mandela's back, and tapped him on the shoulder.

The Democracy Report

He turned, with a puzzled look. I asked if he intended to survey the surrounding countryside and stake a claim to leadership in a neighboring community now that his elder brother was nkosi of Mvezo. Swirling around, he whispered, "Are you mad? Man, I'm totally a Joburg boy." The slower patterns of rural life, with traditional views of the relationships between men and women, were not for him. His description of himself as "totally a Joburg boy" provided the opening for long conversations, spread over the following four years, about what it meant to be a member of South Africa's most famous family and a Joburger at heart. He seemed buoyant in the moment, though, to watch his brother's moment of triumph.

The new chief, on the other hand, looked somber, as if the weight of his new responsibilities suddenly had become quite clear. "The generators failed us today. But it was a wonderful ceremony anyway," he said. The new nkosi reported that there was no electricity in the village yet. He knew that it would be hard to convince the electricity supplier, Eskom, to install electricity way out in such a remote area. The road was abysmal, too. He noted that a number of VIPs had been waylaid by blown tires and ruined engines. He intended to revive small-scale agriculture in the area, having already offered his neighbors the services of his own bull to generate new herds of cattle for people of the village. The headman of Mvezo imagined a new kind of village -- a "place apart," perhaps, but also a rural precinct fully representative of new national aspirations. Mvezo would be more engaged in the wide world, and if Chief Mandela had his way, it would also be protected somehow from the more alienating aspects of modern life.

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Douglas Foster is associate professor at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and author of After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post Apartheid South Africa.

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