JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- As Nelson Mandela's poor health continued to sadden South Africans and inspire memories of his greatness, a grubby court battle unfolded Friday between members of his family.
It was, quite literally, a fight over the bodies of Mandela's three dead children.
Mandela's grandson, Mandla, chief of the Mvezo area in South Africa's Eastern Cape province, had the bodies dug up in 2011 and reburied in his village, where the elder Mandela was born.
Since Nelson Mandela had reportedly expressed a desire to be buried next to his children, critics saw this as a bid to ensure the country's first black president would also be interred in Mvezo, not Qunu, where Mandela grew up and where the family grave site lies. The theory went that if Mandela's birthplace and grave site were both in Mvezo, the village would be a tourist draw, raking in money for years to come.
The high court in Mthatha, the closest town to Qunu, on Friday issued an interim order for the return of the remains, the City Press newspaper reported. The order wasn't made public.
The decision was a blow to the authority of Mandla Mandela, who regards himself as leader of the Mandela clan but was outmaneuvered by his aunt, Makaziwe, eldest of Mandela's surviving children, who has emerged as an unofficial family spokeswoman in recent days.
The case highlights rivalries within the Mandela family and efforts to get control of assets, or cash in on his cachet after his death.The court battle came as President Obama flew into South Africa for a visit, and as Mandela's ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, told reporters that the former statesman was doing better.
“I'm not a doctor, but I can say from what he was a few days ago, there is great improvement, but clinically he is still unwell," she told reporters in Soweto.
Madikizela-Mandela criticized those who have said it is time to let Mandela go, a common thread in Twitter messages since he was admitted to a Pretoria hospital with a recurring lung infection, saying such comments were insensitive to his family.
“I am sure none of you would want to hear the same about your family,” she said.
Obama said he would be guided by Mandela's family about any visit to the former leader, but did not wish to intrude on his privacy or that of his relatives.
Mandela's dead children include a daughter, also named Makaziwe, who died in infancy. A son, Thembekile, was killed in a car accident at age 24, when Mandela was in prison. (Mandela was denied permission to attend the funeral.) Another son, Makgatho, Mandla's father, died at 54 of an AIDS-related illness.
City Press on Thursday quoted a village leader who was angry that Mandla Mandela had not consulted the family or elders before having the bodies exhumed and reburied in his area.
“He just went to the gravesite and dug up the remains. People in the village even refused to be part of the process because it had been done in such an undignified manner,” Nokwanele Balizulu, chief of Qunu, told the paper.Friday's embarrassing hearing wasn't the first time that Mandla Mandela has faced court action. In 2011, Mvezo villagers brought a case against him to prevent him from building a hotel and stadium in an area close to graves, describing him as behaving like a "dictator." The court dismissed the action after Mandla Mandela pledged not to interfere with any graves.
He was also criticized for having the hut where Nelson Mandela was born torn down and replaced with a replica.
He faced successive court battles surrounding an ugly divorce from his first wife and a battle over assets. A second marriage was declared null and void, and he married a third time, despite a court order barring the union, according to local media accounts.
Recently, Makaziwe Mandela and other family members launched a court battle to get control over a trust fund her father set up for income generated from the sale of artworks depicting his handprint. The family is trying to have three directors removed.
In a recent interview with City Press, Mandla Mandela called this court action "shocking."
“I will never, while my grandfather lives, or after his passing, be part of the squabbling over his own assets and his own legacy," he said. "We should be preserving his dignity as a family and not be part of stripping it away from him.”