MTHATHA, South Africa: A South African court on Wednesday ordered that the graves of three of Nelson Mandela’s children be immediately returned to his childhood village, following a bitter family quarrel linked to the ailing anti-apartheid hero’s final resting place.
The public row comes as the 94-year-old former political prisoner, who became South Africa’s first black president, lies critically ill in what is now his fourth week in hospital.
Mandela’s oldest grandson Mandla allegedly had the graves moved from Qunu, Mandela’s childhood home, to Mvezo, about 30 kilometres (20 miles) away, in 2011 without the rest of the family’s consent.
Mandela has expressed his wish to be buried in Qunu, and his daughters want to have the children’s remains returned so they can be buried together.
A judge in the southern city of Mthatha upheld an earlier interim order for Mandla, 39, to return the remains to Qunu by Wednesday afternoon and instructed him to pay all legal costs.
Hours afterwards three hearses arrived in Mvezo along with a sheriff who forced open the gates to Mandla’s estate with a pickaxe.
Mandla’s legal team lodged a fresh application to have the order rescinded but it was unclear whether the court was considering the appeal.
The order was issued in response to a request by more than a dozen relatives of the revered leader, including his wife Graca Machel, two of his daughters and several grandchildren.
After the decision, several family members present in court stood up and hugged each other.
Political analysts said that rivalry over control of the Mandela legacy could be behind the court tussle.
“The legal battles underline broader divisions within the family,” said Daniel Silke, director of the Political Futures Consultancy.
“They may well be related to financial gains and the exploitation of the Mandela name,” he added, describing the squabbles as “distasteful”.
Previously the grandson has argued that Mandela should be buried at his birthplace Mvezo, where Mandla holds court as clan chief.
The disputed remains are of Mandela’s eldest son Thembekile, who died in 1969, his nine-month-old infant Makaziwe, who died in 1948, and Mandla’s own father Makgatho, who died in 2005.
The grandson’s spokesman Freddy Pilusa insisted that Mandla was not opposed in principle to returning the remains to Qunu.
“He has never been against repatriation of those remains,” Pilusa told AFP.
Mandela, who led the struggle against white-minority rule in South Africa, became president after the country’s first multiracial elections in 1994, following 27 years in apartheid prisons.
He retired from public life in 2004. Rather than accept the hereditary title of chief of Mvezo himself, Mandela chose his grandson to take up the post in the Eastern Cape six years ago.
Mandla has since overseen changes including a new brick-paved road to the village.
A museum currently comprises a tiny outdoor display on Nelson Mandela.
But an impressive collection of tourism-oriented thatched buildings, including a cultural centre and accommodation, is currently under construction with state funding, alongside the offices of the traditional council and a conference centre.
A complaint of tampering with a grave was made against Mandla on Tuesday by family members at a police station near Mthatha, police spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Mzukisi Fatyela told AFP.
“It was sent to the senior public prosecutor for a decision whether to prosecute or not,” he said.
A spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in Mthatha, Luxolo Tyali, said they had not yet received the docket from police.
“I think they (the police) are still doing their investigations so as soon as that has been done — which I don’t think will be today — then we will be able to communicate our decision,” he said.