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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)
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 dirty fight over Mandela's legacy Add to ...

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."

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.

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.

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