Unseemly Mandela family feud bursts into the open at sensitive time

Mandla Mandela, grandson of former South African President Nelson Mandela, talks to journalists during a news conference in Mvezo in the Eastern Cape of South Africa July 4, 2013, a day after a court order to exhume the remains of three of the anti-apartheid hero's children. Siegfried Modola / Reuters

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — It is a family feud that is emotional, unseemly, public and probably could not be happening at a worse time.

On live television Thursday, Nelson Mandela’s oldest grandson accused fellow family members of trying to cash in on the anti-apartheid icon’s legacy.

"This is the very family that has taken their own father, their own grandfather, to court for his monies," he said referring to a long-running battle by his aunt Makaziwe to remove the guardians of a Mandela charitable trust.

The news conference – during which Mandla Mandela also shocked many when he revealed that his son was the product of a liaison between his brother and his now ex-wife – followed a court order that he exhume the graves of three of the former president’s children, and return them to their original resting place.

The court said Mandla had to return the remains to a family plot that he had removed them from two years ago, without the rest of the family giving permission or apparently even being aware. 

The dispute involved a burial site in the village of Mvezo, where Nelson Mandela was born, and where grandson Mandla, 38, is now the traditional chief, and a family graveyard in the village of Qunu, 17 miles away, where Mandela grew up, and where he has said he wants to be laid to rest. 

President Jacob Zuma's office on Thursday said that Mandela, lauded around the world for his conciliatory approach in leading the country out of minority white rule, remained "critical but stable" after nearly four weeks in hospital.

In a statement released Thursday, the presidency denied reports that Mandela was in a vegetative state.

"We confirm our earlier statement released this afternoon after President Jacob Zuma visited Madiba in hospital that Madiba remains in a critical, but stable condition. The doctors deny that the former President is in a vegetative state," the statement read.

A worker breaks the lock of the gate at the home of Mandla Mandela, the grandson of former South African president Nelson Mandela, in Mvezo, South Africa, Wednesday, July 3, 2013 as a court order is carried out to collect human remains . Schalk Van Zuydam / AP

Mandela’s grandson has been building what’s alternatively been described as a “heritage center,” or “tourist attraction,” that he allegedly hoped would include the grave of Nelson Mandela, when that time inevitably comes.

More than a dozen of Mandela’s children, grandchildren and relatives, including his wife, Graca Machel, had brought the matter to court.

Mandla said Thursday that he moved the bodies based on his right as chief to decide the final resting place of family members.

"I hold the right to determine where he is buried. I am the chief of Mvezo, as a traditional leader and the head of the royal house of Mandela," he said.

Despite this assertion, last week, the rival faction led by aunt Makaziwe, won the order for the bodies to be returned to Qunu. It was carried out late on Wednesday after a last-minute legal bid by Mandla failed. They were re-interred on Thursday.

The graves in question were those of Makgatho Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s oldest son and Mandla’s father, who died in 2005 of an AIDS-related illness. The remains of Makaziwe Mandela, the elder statesman’s first daughter who died as an infant in 1948, and Mandela’s second son, Madiba Thembekile, killed in a car accident in 1969, were also in dispute. 

Mandla maintained that his family has turned against him because he refused to support them in another legal dispute concerning control of one of Nelson Mandela's trust funds. They are challenging the former president's friend and one-time lawyer, George Bizos, who they reportedly want removed from the boards of two investment funds related to the anti-apartheid icon.

Bizos, a renowned human rights lawyer, is accused of forcing himself onto the board of the companies set up to channel proceeds from the sale of Mandela's handprint. He has denied the allegations.

"It seems like anyone and everyone can come and say 'I am a Mandela' and demand to be part of the decision-making in this family," he said. "Individuals have abandoned their own families and heritage and decided to jump on the Mandela wagon."

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu appealed to members of the Mandela family to display the grace "their patriarch and the nation deserves at this somber moment."

"Please, please, please may we think not only of ourselves. It's almost like spitting in Madiba's face," Archbishop Tutu said in a statement released Thursday.

"Your anguish, now, is the nation's anguish - and the world's. We want to embrace you, to support you, to shine our love for Madiba through you. Please may we not besmirch his name," he added.

Meanwhile, Machel spoke about her husband's condition on Thursday at a fundraising drive for a children's hospital that will be named after the 94-year-old anti-apartheid leader.

"Whatever is the outcome of his stay in hospital, that will remain the second time where he offered his nation an opportunity to be united under the banner of our flag, under the banner of our constitution," she said.

NBC News' Rohit Kachroo and Reuters contributed to this report.