Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Grave Matter

As an army coup in Egypt ended that country’s brief skirmish with democracy, South Africa awaits the passing of the man who was responsible more than anyone else for a democracy that has lasted twenty years.  Yes, it is imperfect and, yes, many new problems have arisen to replace the old, but the country has developed and grown a robust economy.  It is peaceful and relatively well-governed in comparison to most of the rest of Africa and much of the rest of the world.  Last week I was at a conference in Florida.  I was only asked about two issues in South Africa – was Oscar Pistorius guilty of murder and how is Nelson Mandela?

Well, the answer to the latter is that he is critical.  Despite on again, off again denials, he is on life support in a Pretoria hospital.  Despite prayers and vigils, it seems very unlikely that he will return home.  His illness overshadowed the visit of President Obama, who has not made Africa one of his priority areas in any case.  The president met with the Mandela family and said the right things, but any thought of a meeting with Madiba himself had to be dropped.

Yet even now, the family is in the midst of squabbles.  The tasteless issue around the Mandela Trust that I described in Don't live too long (perhaps I regret the rather prophetic title now) is in abeyance.  Even this family couldn’t contemplate suing an old man on his death bed for his money!  But a tit for tat has played out in the meanwhile, which would be farcical in any other circumstances.

Mandla Mandela
Mandela’s grandson, Mandla, who has expressed disgust over the Trust lawsuit to grab Mandela’s money, has been doing a bit of grabbing on his own account.  It seems that in 2011, he quietly authorized the removal of the bodies of three of Mandela’s children from the graveyard in Qunu to Mvezo where Nelson Mandela was born and where Mandla now holds court as clan chief.  It isn’t quite clear why he did this, but the speculation is that he sees Mvezo as a future shrine and tourist attraction for the great man and wished to have all the exhibits on ‘display’ there.  Mandla’s complex in the area is in the process of an expensive upgrade.  He complains that his side of the story hasn’t been heard, and his spokesman claimed that he has had “dirt thrown in his direction by all sorts of individuals baying for a few minutes of fame and media attention at his expense.”  A small issue is that Mandela has expressed the wish to be buried at Qunu with his relatives.  But then maybe he hasn’t kept up with their travels around the area.

Police and herse approach Mandla's complex at Mvezo
The three bodies on tour are those of Mandla Mandela’s father, Makgatho Mandela, who died in 2005; Mandela's first daughter, named Makaziwe, who died as an infant in 1948; and another son, Madiba Thembekile Mandela, who died in a traffic accident in 1969.

On Friday a court agreed with the majority of the family that the bodies should be returned to their former resting places while newspaper headlines cried:  ‘Mandla in Grave Trouble’ and ‘Mandla Faces Prosecution’.  Mandla appealed, but yesterday a court dismissed his objection as ‘frivolous’ and called his behavior ‘scandalous’.  Rather dramatically police and funeral workers left immediately for the Mvezo site, broke open the gates with a pick ax, exhumed the bodies, and carted them off to a morgue for forensics tests.  What those tests might be or why they should be required is unclear.  Maybe there is a concern that Mandla might have switched bodies?  The whole matter is at least as complex as the plot of DEADLY HARVEST, which has a few grave troubles of its own.

Meanwhile the wait for Mandela’s passing continues.  Hopefully, when that happens, he will be allowed at last to rest in peace.  And at one place.


PS Happy Independence Day to all American readers!


  1. You cannot make this stuff up. Then again...there is the prescient "Deadly Harvest"....

    Thanks for the 4th coming wishes, to Michael.

  2. Michael, I cannot imagine a monument wonderful enough for Mandela. The full moon is the only thing I can think of visible from earth that might do. To me, he represents humanity at its very best. This monumentally petty and embarrassing display of attempted self-aggrandizement by his descendants is a tragic reminder of the how our species looks lower down the scale. How far the apple can fall from the tree!

  3. Indeed. Today Nobel prize winner Desmond Tutu called on the family to resolve their differences. But of course they'll just all blame each other. A comment on the newspaper chat site suggested this was the price Madiba paid for a democratic South Africa as he was not there to raise his family. Personally I think he paid enough on Robben Island.

  4. Oh, right. We should blame Mandela's absence as a father. He raised a nation!! In the States right now we are very busy praising the heroism of 19 people who died because they were sent to stop a wild fire from destroying a poorly planned tract of suburban houses. If their children turn out venal in the future, no one will take away their fathers' hero status. Blaming the victim is nothing new, but in this case, it defies description.