While South Africa’s political icon Nelson Mandela was busy celebrating his 92nd birthday on July 18, in Johannesburg, his relatives and colleagues were surprisingly involved in bitter feuds for control of his name because of the political and economic riches it carries, writes Ndubuisi Ugah with agency reports
Not many would forget in a hurry the historic role played by former South African President and human rights advocate, Dr. Nelson Mandela, to end the then apartheid policy in his country. Jailed for 27 years, he emerged to become the country’s first black president and to play a leading role in the drive for peace in other spheres of conflict. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
His charisma, self-depreciating sense of humour and lack of bitterness over his harsh treatment, as well as his amazing life story, partly explain his extraordinary global appeal.
Little wonder then that the news spread like wild fire, when it was reported that Mandela had clocked 92. Though the celebration was well attended, the dignitaries, who came from within and outside the African continent, spoke eloquently of what Mandela meant to the entire world.
Significant as this occasion was to Mandela, having been crest-fallen, owing to the death of his grand-daughter on the eve of the opening ceremony of the recently concluded 2010 World Cup, Mandela was said to have devoted his birthday to public service, according to reports.
However, while he was celebrating his birthday, reports said his relatives and colleagues were involved in bitter feuds for control of his name because of the political and economic riches it carries.
The disputes, it was gathered, was said to have taken place at different levels, involving his family from his three marriages, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to which he dedicated most of his life, the various foundations and charities he set up after his retirement in 1999, as well as political comrades and business associates with whom he forged relations over many years.
Reacting to this development, a South African author and newspaper columnist, Mr. Fred Khumalo, said: “It’s nasty. People are fighting while he is still alive”.
While this was ongoing, Mandela’s appearance at the finals of the World Cup was said to have added yet another twist to the entire controversy. In the build-up to the tournament, the Sports Minister, Makhenkesi Stofile, and Mr. Mandela’s grandson, Mandla Mandela, both claiming to be speaking on behalf of the former president, were said to have given contradictory accounts of his wishes.
While Stofile said Mandela had "demanded" to appear at the opening, Mandla said he had indicated he would "prefer to be at home".
And Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the anti-apartheid icon’s second wife, who he divorced after his release from jail, entered the fray at a pre-World Cup rally in Johannesburg.
Claiming to carry a message on behalf of “Tata" (father), she told the crowd that he wanted the trophy to stay in Africa, indicating the extent to which she was prepared to associate herself with his name, despite the acrimonious personal and political fall-out they had at the time of their divorce.
In the end, Mandela did not attend the opening ceremony because of the death of his great-grandchild in a car accident, but he was there, according to the Nelson Mandela Foundation which is officially in charge of his itinerary-“in spirit”.
Mandela appeared briefly at the closing ceremony, with his current wife, Graca Machel, helping him to raise his hand to wave at the crowd, a clear sign of how frail he has become.
Indicating that the struggle form Mandela’s legacy that the issue had again ignited controversy, Mandla said Mandela had attended under “extreme pressure”, putting the blame on the world football governing body, FIFA.
Similarly, the Nelson Mandela Foundation ruled out Mr Mandela taking part in the campaign for last year’s election in South Africa, but lost the battle when he attended the final ANC rally to give his backing to the party's controversial presidential candidate, Jacob Zuma.
Taking a swipe at the foundation at the time, Mandla said: "As a family, we are united in that the legacy of Madiba (Mandela) belongs to his family first and to the ANC."
New to the political stage, Mandla has become influential since his appointment as a traditional chief in Mr Mandela's birthplace, the village of Mvezo, and his elevation to parliament in last year's election.
"In my veins runs the blood of the Mandelas which has been around for centuries," he once boasted.
Khumalo has doubts about Mandla’s rise to prominence, pointing out that as early as 2008, Snuki Zikalala, the former head of news at the South African Broadcasting Corporation, told the Sunday World newspaper that the public broadcaster had paid Mandla 3m rand ($395,000 or £257,000) for rights to cover Mandela’s funeral, an allegation Mandla strongly denied.
“It’s as though the Mandela name is a licence to make money," Khumalo said. Mandla was also involved in a bitter feud with the Nelson Mandela Museum over plans to protect Mandela’s birthplace as a heritage site and accused it - along with the Mandela Aids project, 46664, named after his prison number - of "benefiting and profiting from my grandfather's name". “They give nothing to his people… Mandela's people are dying here (in Mvezo) from Aids, yet 46664 have done nothing here,” he said in an interview with South Africa’s Mail and Guardian newspaper.
But he is only one of several Mandelas claiming to be the true custodian of the anti-apartheid icon's legacy.
When Mandela’s 90th birthday was celebrated two years ago, most of his six children boycotted an event held at his homestead in Qunu in the Eastern Cape because of differences over the celebrations, despite a plea from Mandela and Mandla.
“We do not approve of the vineyard theme,” one of the children said in a letter referring to a bottle of wine produced for the occasion with a personalised birthday greeting to Mandela on the label.
“Tata’s legacy institutions have taken a decision not to have Tata’s image associated with tobacco products, alcohol or drugs," the letter said.
With his name, a global brand worth $2 millions, Mandela has also been involved in a long-running dispute with his former lawyer, Ismail Ayob, who acted for him when he was in jail on Robben Island, and businessman Ross Calder over the sale of artwork bearing his signature.
Mandela has been trying to prevent them from selling the artwork and demanded they account for large sums of money collected through sales.
When the row first erupted, Ayob’s son, Zayd Ayob, said: “all the money went to the family”.
This appeared to be a reference to the Mandela Trust, a private fund administered by Mandela’s children.
Consequently, Mandela’s lawyer George Bizos was said to have argued that: “Mandela’s dispute is with Ayob and Calder, and not with his children”.
But suspicion lingers that Mandela's family, as well as his political comrades and business associates, will become involved in more acrimonious battles once he dies. There would be a parallel in this with another globally recognised black civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr, whose family is still fighting for control of his estate more than 40 years after his death.
Last year, South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper reported that Mandela had convened a family meeting to discuss his will.
At the meeting he reportedly suggested that the Nelson Mandela Foundation should inherit a large portion of his estate and the rest should go to his children, Mandla, his grandson, and his current wife, Graca Machel.
But, the newspaper said, no agreement was reached, an indication which showed Mandela’s weakening grip on his affairs.
“He is old now and people are just abusing his name and dragging him to public events,” Khumalo said.
While the controversy remains a sad one, observers argue that Mandela, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001, has remained an arbiter of peace, who has been involved in peace negotiations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and other African countries. He was also said to have encouraged peace efforts in other areas of the world.
But as it stands now, the controversy has again brought to fore, the question of how Mandela intends resolving the issue before its starts having an adverse effect on him, given the fact that he is a global figure.