When a family dissolves

2013-12-13 00:00

AS South Africa, Africa and the world at large bid farewell to Nelson Mandela on Sunday, I cannot help but wonder if the glue that kept Madiba’s family together while he was alive will remain intact once the funeral is over.

My concern is based on my own painful experience of growing up in a big family like the Mandelas.

I am speaking about the Shembe family on my maternal side, which commands respect from millions of people in South Africa.

I was born at a time when the glue that had kept the family together since the inception of the Nazareth Baptist Church in 1910, popularly known as the Shembe Church, had already begun to dissolve.

My great-grandfather, Prophet Isaiah Mudliwamafa Shembe, founded the church and died in 1935.

He was succeeded by his son Reverend Johannes Galilee (J.G.) Shembe, who led the congregation until his death in 1976.

Like Mandela, J.G. Shembe was the glue that kept the family, as well as the church, together.

His death, after 40 years as head of the church, was to signal the end of the unity. His younger brother, Amos Kula (A.K.) Shembe, took control, leading to a split in the church in 1977.

Factionalism spilled over into the family, with some members supporting J.G.’s son, Reverend Londa Shembe, who remained at the church’s headquarters, Ekuphakameni, while others supported A.K. who moved to what would be known as Ebuhleni, where the majority of church members went.

I was not yet born when the factionalism started, but it was to shape my outlook of my family’s legacy.

Growing up at Ekuphakameni, I was fed their version of what had led to the split into two factions, which robbed me of a chance to know all my family because I had no association with those who went to Ebuhleni.

The year 1977, when the breakaway happened, started a long court case to determine the rightful leader of the church, which has still not been resolved.

Reverend Londa and A.K. are both dead, but the division is very much alive, and this is the pain that lives on, robbing the younger generation of knowing the truth about the work that the great prophet started.

It is not Madiba’s death that makes me worry about whether we will have a united Mandela family to preserve his legacy.

What concerns me is that Mvezo Chief Mandla and his aunt Makaziwe Mandela, and other family members, have been through a nasty court battle, fighting over Madiba’s children’s graves, which was obviously won by the latter.

Like Madiba, my grandfather J.G. was a wealthy man at the time of his death.

So let this be a lesson for the Mandela family, that they should ensure they do not betray his legacy by allowing petty squabbles to tarnish what he achieved in his lifetime.

If the Mandelas know how blessed they have been to have a man like Madiba as their elder, they will ensure that they continue to fly his flag high.

However, if they believe that their dispute is bigger than what Madiba stood for, they will be robbing future Mandela generations of a chance to know the legacy of the international statesman.

The Shembe family division has robbed South Africa, Africa and the world of a chance to get to know about the work of the Prophet Isaiah Shembe.

I always say that my life would probably have turned out differently if my mother’s family had not fallen into the abyss of factionalism.

I hope that since Madiba has a great place in the ANC, his family will shy away from being dragged into the factions within the ruling party, in order to protect his legacy.

It is only fair that the Mandela family respects the feelings of his followers around the world and remain united.

They can only do that by emulating Madiba and remembering that it was his stance on forgiveness that won the hearts of many.

• Thobani Ngqulunga is a reporter at The Witness.

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