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Mandla Mandela sits on lion's fur in Mvezo, South Africa. He is the chief of the village where his grandfather, Nelson Mandela, was born. He has been criticized for profiting from his family ties.

Clare Byrne/DPA/AFP/Clare Byrne/DPA/AFP

The historians at the Nelson Mandela Museum were seething. For years, they had carefully preserved the ruins of the humble birthplace of the man who defeated apartheid - its broken walls a mute testament to the village's suffering under the white minority regime.

Then the village's new chief arrived on the scene: Nelson Mandela's energetic young grandson, Mandla. Ignoring the historians, he razed the old walls and foundations, cleared away the ruins of his grandfather's birthplace, and built a collection of six replica huts on the site to attract tourists. For the first time, the museum was shut out of the birthplace of its namesake.

In public, neither side is saying anything about the dispute. But the bitterness is close to the surface when museum employees are asked privately about the young chief. "He destroyed a lot of history and heritage," one official fumes. Another says: "The museum was conserving and preserving those ruins as physical evidence. It was so important to people all over the world. Now the ruins are gone."

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The chief and his family members are equally angry over the dispute. Some of them still refuse to set foot in the museum's grand headquarters in the nearby city of Mthatha.

In frail health, Mr. Mandela, 92, is rarely seen in public any more. His last appearance was a brief spin in a golf cart before a huge crowd at the World Cup final in July. He was barely able to raise his hands to wave.

But as he withdraws from public life, the scramble to control his legacy is gaining momentum.

All the key players are jousting for influence: his children and grandchildren; his comrades in the African National Congress; the Thembu royal family that claims his bloodline; and the various charities, foundations and museums that bear his name. As they feud over the right to speak for him, their rivalries are growing increasingly fierce. In microcosm, it is the story of post-apartheid South Africa, its unity riven by political and social conflicts.

The story begins in the remote village of Mvezo, where Mr. Mandela was born in 1918 in a small thatched-roof hut on a hillside above the winding Mbashe River. The round huts known as rondavels, built of mud and cow dung, are still the main dwellings in the village, which sprawls across several hills on a dirt road in the heart of the Eastern Cape, the poorest region of South Africa.


Mr. Mandela's father, Henry, was chief of this village and a clan leader in a branch of the Thembu royal family. But he was stripped of his village title in a legal dispute with the colonial authorities - a humiliation that Nelson Mandela has never forgotten. Years later, the entire village was forcibly relocated farther uphill, to suit the administrative needs of the apartheid government.

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Nine decades after Mr. Mandela was born here, daily life is little changed. The village is nearly as poor and isolated as ever. The villagers still trudge down to the river to fetch their drinking water - a task that consumes many hours of the day and exposes them to potential illness from the murky river, where cattle and goats bathe.

Mandla Mandela was appointed as Mvezo's chief in 2007 by King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo, whose ancient domain was established in these hills many centuries ago, long before the Dutch settlers arrived. By restoring the chieftainship to the Mandela name, the king said he was righting a historical wrong: the injustice that Nelson Mandela's father had suffered from white authorities in the 1920s. Traditional royal leaders from across southern Africa attended the colourful ceremony as Mandla was draped in a lion skin, the symbol of royalty, and addressed by the ceremonial name Zwelivelile ("the nation has appeared").

But in the three years since he became chief, progress has been extremely limited. There is still no high school for the 400 families here, and basic services such as water and electricity remain sporadic. Water is supposed to be pumped to the village from a clean borehole, but the pump is often broken for weeks at a time. A mobile clinic provides some health care, but the clinic is often gone from the village. A permanent clinic was promised, but it has been stalled for years, with only a pile of bricks to mark its location.

Instead of water and health, the biggest development in Mvezo is a new "Great Place" on the hillside near the Mandela birthplace. After three years of construction, the Great Place is a collection of modern offices, assembly halls and a tribal court room. At the heart of the complex is a large office for the chief, including a private bathroom and a balcony with sweeping views over the river.

Just below, adjacent to the replica huts at the birthplace, the chief has built several huts as living quarters for himself and his mother and other family members. Tourists are ordered not to take photos of the Mandela birthplace while the construction continues.

For the king, embroiled in his own legal battles, the choice of the new chief was a masterstroke. Mandla Mandela, 36, is a charismatic and imposing man who is rising fast in the ruling party. With his famous name and ANC connections, some analysts see him as a future president. He became a member of Parliament last year, and his influence in the ANC could help the king regain the power and privileges that the royal family once enjoyed.

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The king, interviewed at his own Great Place in the hills about 30 kilometres from Mvezo, says he is proud of what Mandla has brought to the village. "He has a Great Place that is bigger than mine," he jokes. "I am jealous. But I am also happy that Mvezo has that opportunity."

He rejects the museum's criticism of the replica huts at Nelson Mandela's birthplace. "They want it to be isolated - they hate the Mandelas living around there," he said. "But it was a house where people lived. Why can't it be restored? You can't leave ruins just for the sake of having ruins."

Not everyone is so pleased by Mandla Mandela's activities. Last year, when he brought his frail grandfather onto the campaign trail at two ANC rallies, he was sharply criticized by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which complained that he had failed to arrange medical services to safeguard Nelson's health. The foundation, which houses the former president's offices near his villa in a posh Johannesburg suburb, carefully controls his daily schedule to protect his health. It was irked that it was not informed of the campaign plans.

Mandla responded furiously, claiming the foundation had no right to control his grandfather's movements. He said the foundation and other charities were "profiting from my grandfather's name" without giving anything to the people. "The legacy of Nelson Mandela unarguably belongs to the ANC, his political home for decades, and to his family who brought him into this world," he declared. "It is therefore the responsibility of the ANC and his family to guard and promote his legacy."

Nelson's former wife, Winnie, has also attacked the foundation. "The man who went to prison would not have allowed this commercialization or being a brand name for a foundation," she told the author V.S. Naipaul, according to his latest book. "My grandchildren are deeply hurt by all this commercialization."

If his grandchildren are opposed to commercialization, this is not clear from Mandla's own fundraising activities. In Mvezo, for example, the Great Place contains a collection of paintings by a South African artist, bearing Nelson Mandela's autograph, which Mandla is selling on the Internet to raise money for the village.

Mandla is clearly beloved by his grandfather, who leaned heavily on his grandson's arm as he shuffled slowly onto the stage at the ANC rallies last year. But in the South African media, he is a controversial figure. He has been embroiled in a nasty divorce battle with his wife, Tando, who claimed in court that he had beaten her and committed adultery. He denied the claims and accused her of deserting him. She also objected to his marriage to a 19-year-old woman from an Indian Ocean island. (Polygamy is permitted under South Africa's laws on customary marriage, but the permission of the first wife is required.)

Mandla is reported to be a wealthy man, with holdings in eight companies. His wife said he held more than $730,000 in one bank account and earns $100,000 annually as an MP and nearly $120,000 annually from his directorship of a freight company. He also holds a number of properties, and went to court to evict an unemployed cousin from a house in Soweto where his grandmother once lived.

South African media have reported that Mandla received more than $400,000 for selling the television rights to his grandfather's funeral. He has denied the report.


His patron, the Thembu king, is equally controversial. He was convicted last December of culpable homicide, kidnapping, arson and other charges in connection with an attack on villagers who occupied land near his farm in 1995. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but is free while the case is appealed. He insists that he was unfairly prosecuted, and he complains that the government has failed to give him money for his legal defence.

In the nearly village of Qunu, where Nelson Mandela spent much of his childhood, a museum guide is scornful of Mvezo's new chief. "We are a democracy, but he is trying to restore the strong arm of the chiefs," the guide said. "People are a little scared of him. In the old days, when the chief came, the people had to take off their hats to him. Nowadays we don't do that, but Mandla is trying to bring that back."

Most villagers in Mvezo say they are happy with their chief's rule and the gifts they have received from him, including blankets and shoes. They praise the community feasts that he organizes, and the construction jobs that the Great Place has provided. But they are puzzled by the continued lack of water and health care. "What we need most is water," says Nowentele Luhadi, an elderly grandmother who is unsure of her age.

Villagers who fall sick must wait for many hours - even a full day - for an ambulance to arrive, they say. They cannot understand why the clinic construction was halted. "We were promised it, but it was never built," says Zama Nkatula, a 67-year-old villager. "We need it desperately."

Mandla Mandela rarely grants interviews these days, and he did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Globe and Mail. But his mother, Rayne Mandela, is the acting chief of Mvezo when he is not in the village, and she speaks openly about the repeated delays in building the health clinic, the frequent absence of the mobile clinic, and the malfunctioning of the water supply.

"There are no toilets in Mvezo, no running water," she said in an interview. "We don't know what happened to the water tap. It's unhealthy when you have to get water from a river where cows and donkeys go. You should boil the water and add bleach, but some people don't bother to do that."

Mrs. Mandela says her son has the right to settle disputes in the village - even punishing criminals - without involving the police or the courts. He has shut down liquor sellers, for example, and confiscated their alcohol supplies, she says.

But in the face of the deep poverty of villages such as Mvezo, can the social problems be solved by traditional chiefs and kings? Or is it the responsibility of South Africa's modern democratic government? The question has vexed South Africa since the collapse of apartheid as it seeks a new balance between modernity and tradition.

When he was charged with treason in the early 1960s, Mr. Mandela wore an animal-skin cloak into the courtroom to signify his royal blood. Today his grandson wears a lion skin in Parliament as a symbol of his own royal connections. Yet the arbitrary power of kings and chiefs sits uneasily with the democracy of South Africa's post-apartheid system.

South Africa's new president, Jacob Zuma, has tilted the balance back toward the royal traditions. He is close to the Zulu monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini, and openly practices Zulu traditions such as polygamy. But this has sparked conflict within the ANC, where some of his own party members have criticized his lifestyle. The friction between royalty and democracy is yet another fault line in the fractious South African landscape of today.

From the beginning of his life, Nelson Mandela was torn between his traditional royal heritage and the more modern influences around him. His mother, Henry's third wife, converted to Christianity, and Nelson was sent to a Methodist school, becoming the first in his family to receive a formal education.

"Like so many Africans of his day, Mandela would continue to be pulled in two directions for the rest of his life - between traditional values and customs, and modernity, represented largely by Christianity in his early years," says the Mandela Museum in its account of his childhood.

For several years during his boyhood, he lived in the royal residence of a tribal regent, being groomed for royal duties. He spent many hours listening to the hereditary chiefs and studying their traditions. Yet later he fled to Johannesburg to avoid a marriage arranged by the regent. He remained a Christian throughout his life, and he rejected the traditional tribal practice of polygamy - unlike his father, his grandson and Mr. Zuma.

Even his name reveals the competing strains in his heritage. His birth name was Rolihlahla Mandela, but he was given an English name, Nelson, by a teacher at his Methodist school. He has kept both names, symbolizing the two sides of his identity.

Another split in the Mandela legacy is within his own family. A new book, Young Mandela by British writer David James Smith, documents the clashes between the "first family" (the children and grandchildren of Nelson's first wife, Evelyn) and the "second family" (the children of Winnie).

The book has become famous for its details on Mr. Mandela's alleged infidelities, and its revelation that Mr. Mandela himself had admitted to a "thoroughly immoral life" after the breakup of his first marriage. But it also documents the deep tensions between the first family and the Mandela Foundation, and between the first and second families.

The two families refused to walk together in 2005 at the funeral of Nelson's oldest son, Makgatho, the father of Mandla. "Tensions were so high after Makgatho died that we didn't even allow them (the second family) to come and accompany the body," said Ndileka Mandela, granddaughter of Nelson and Evelyn, according to the book.

The book also reveals that the second family supported the Mandela Foundation in trying to prevent the former president from appearing at the ANC campaign rallies last year. It says there was a "stand-up row" between Mandla and Winnie's daughter Zindzi, who tried to stop Mandla from taking his grandfather to a huge ANC rally at a soccer stadium in Johannesburg just before the election.

Some of these conflicts have been temporarily suppressed in deference to Mr. Mandela's frail health. But the uneasy truce will not continue forever. "There are competing factions around him, and they have different interests, and inevitably tensions will arise," Mr. Smith said in an interview.

"And you can be absolutely sure that it's only going to get a lot worse before it gets better. His death will likely provoke even more of an attempt to take control of his legacy."

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's African bureau chief

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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