The battle for House Mandela

2013-04-14 14:00

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In this extract from a recent British Sunday Times magazine article, David James Smith offers some startling insights into the often nasty battle for Nelson Mandela’s legacy – and its financial fruits

It is an open secret in South Africa that Nelson Mandela has two families who do not see eye to eye.

The first family, the descendants of Mandela’s marriage to his first wife, Evelyn Mase, has often found itself in bitter disputes with his second family, from his marriage to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

In broad terms, the first family feels its role in his life was eclipsed by his marriage to Winnie after he and Evelyn divorced in 1958.

Mandela divorced Winnie six years after he was released from prison in 1990.

He married for the third time, on his 80th birthday, July 18 1998, Graça Machel, the widow of Mozambican leader Samora Machel.

Graça, in her mid-50s when they married, has often tried to act as peacemaker between the two families, not always with success.

Winnie’s family, for instance, has withdrawn completely from the planning of Mandela’s funeral.

It is possible its members are making their own plans. Nobody seems sure, and I could not reach anyone from the second family to talk to for this article.

Each side has accused the other of exploiting Mandela’s name or legacy for its own ends.

“The second family (Winnie’s) feel they own my grandfather,” Ndileka Mandela told me when we met during my visit.

She describes herself as the first of the first of the first — she is the first-born child of Mandela’s first-born son, Thembi, from his first marriage to Evelyn.

Ndileka and I initially met when I was researching my book Young Mandela, which took me right into the heart of his family and the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

Back then, she spoke to me for the first time about the family enmities and differences.

It became clear from my long, often candid, meetings with close family members over a sustained period that the two branches of the family were affected by the same circumstances – Mandela had been so busy trying to father a nation, he had little time to be a father to his own children.

Prior to his conviction in 1962, he had been on the run and then spent 27 years in prison. He was never around. Put simply, they were a dysfunctional family trying to cope with an absent father.

Winnie’s daughter Zindzi told me how she felt resentful towards her father for not being there, even when he first came out of prison. I wondered if there had been any reconciliation between the warring factions since my book had been published.

Ndileka told me there had been a brief rapprochement but it didn’t last.

“Things are always bubbling beneath the surface. For me, I’ve come to accept it’s a fallacy to portray us as being together when the whole world knows we have huge differences. And those differences exist, like any other family. It’s a pity ours are played out in public.”

I imagined them all on visits to Mandela, giving each other the cold shoulder.

Ndileka says it isn’t like that. “He’s the glue that keeps us together. I shudder to think what will happen when that glue is no longer there, but we rally round and put our differences aside.

“Well, I’m not so sure we put them aside, but we pitch up for him.”

Both families are already considering how they will celebrate Mandela’s 95th birthday in July.

There are fears commercialism will enter the proceedings. So far, the only publicly disclosed plans are for a boxing tournament at a casino in Monaco, involving two first-family grandsons, Ndaba and Kweku.

Mandela trained as a boxer in his youth and has remained an enthusiast.

Ndaba told me they got the idea from their second family’s aunt Zindzi, daughter of Winnie.

If that’s right, it is to be hoped their project fares better than Zindzi’s tournament. She tried to organise a birthday boxing event for her father two years ago in Soweto.

When the project collapsed, she was sued in the US by boxing promoter Duane Moody.

This year’s tournament will take place after a charity banquet honouring Mandela. The casino is under the illusion that he will attend if he is well enough.

Mandela’s last landmark birthday, his 90th, was also soured by commercial pressures.

The first family organised a party in Eastern Cape, Mandela’s homeland.

When Winnie’s family discovered the occasion was being used to launch a House of Mandela wine label promoted by Maki, Mandela’s only surviving child from his first marriage, the second family boycotted the party.

“They felt grandad should not be associated with alcohol,” said Ndileka.

“For me, wine is the drink of the gods, it’s biblical. Ultimately, grandad’s name belongs to his family. It is our legacy.

“The wine is not called Nelson Mandela, it’s called Madiba wines from the House of Mandela (Madiba is Mandela’s clan name). On our side of the family, we’ve made the decision that whatever we do, it doesn’t have to invoke his name.”

I was told that members of his family had appealed to him to intervene during the family conflict over his 90th birthday celebrations. “It’s nothing to do with me,” Mandela had said.

“This is about your mothers.”

Although the birthday celebrations caused the family to be at loggerheads once again, looking back, Ndileka says she has some sympathy with something she remembered Zindzi saying, about how it was all right for those outside the family to cash in on the Mandela name – but when his own relatives decide to do it there’s a big row.

“Why not? That’s my question. Why not, when everyone else is?” Ndileka did not approve of the constant marketing of Mandela products as if he was the only icon of the struggle.

The latest project, a reality TV show called Being Mandela, has once again stirred up the families.

It stars two of his second-family granddaughters, Swati and Zaziwe, the daughters of Zenani, Mandela’s eldest daughter from his marriage to Winnie.

They insist it has Mandela’s approval.

Ndileka refused to criticise the endeavours of the second-family grandchildren, her cousins.

“You know what, I don’t want to say people aren’t doing it right. I can only speak for myself. Others will make their own choices.”

I knew, though, that others around Mandela were horrified by the reality show, which had already begun broadcasting in the US.

It will also be broadcast in Finland. It was handy for Swati and Zaziwe, having a TV show, as it gave them the opportunity to promote their LWTF (Long Walk to Freedom) fashion line of T-shirts bearing Mandela’s image.

In 2007, Mandela ordered his own Nelson Mandela Foundation to remove his image from all their marketing materials. By then, he had had enough of the cult of Nelson Mandela, and did not want to see his image further exploited.

Times had changed, apparently, and we were led to believe he had wholeheartedly endorsed this new enterprise.

Some were sceptical that he knew what he was endorsing.

All sides of the family agreed they would no longer allow photographs of him to be published, but on February 2 this year, there he was, on the Being Mandela show’s web page, and elsewhere in the South African press with a newborn great grandchild on his lap.

One close associate, speaking anonymously, said: “I am always thinking, ‘What would Madiba say? Is it seemly or unseemly?’”

Mandela certainly felt some guilt at the pain he inflicted on his family by his devotion to the struggle. Perhaps that was why he did not refuse them when relatives came to him for his endorsement.

It was certainly why he set up a Mandela Trust that they would all benefit from after his death, together with more than 20 individual trusts for his children and grandchildren.

Nobody would talk about his estate, but it seems his relatively modest wealth is tied up in those trusts, and in his two homes, in Qunu, in his tribal homeland, and in Houghton in Joburg.

Meanwhile, grandson Mandla’s brother Ndaba and Kweku, the son of their sister, Maki, have jointly formed their own Africa Rising Foundation – Mandela is a trustee, but his name is a discreet presence on the website – with a range of health, education and leadership projects, which appear “seemly”.

Kweku, whom I went to see in Joburg, has been involved in film projects.

His cousins asked him for advice when they were planning their reality show, and “I said to them, ladies, let’s do this show, let’s do it to the highest quality, let’s make sure you have fun with it, and that you don’t get ripped off.”

He also embraces the LWTF fashions launched by the cousins. Marketing consultants already talk about “Brand Madiba”.

“I think it can be magnificent. Just look at what Bob Marley’s family have done with their brand (House of Marley). I bought a pair of their earphones the other day, I really like that. I think my cousins are finding new ways to relate his legacy to a new generation. There’s nothing wrong with that.

“I think it’s going to be very hard to say one individual can alter or change my grandfather’s legacy.”

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