Mandela family clash over plans for his burial
Power struggle rages as former president 'uses machines to breathe'
Published 30/06/2013 | 05:00
One of the many hand-written prayers posted on a wall outside the hospital in Pretoria where Nelson Mandela is being treated reads: "If you can beat prison, you can beat this."
Sadly, for all those who love and admire the great statesman, it is unlikely to be true.
Mr Mandela is believed to be dependent on a kidney dialysis machine and a ventilator, with one member of his clan saying he is "using machines to breathe".
If he is on life support, then members of the Mandela family are likely to be asked to choose whether to allow his life to end naturally.
It is an agonising decision for any set of relatives, but one that is made intensely more difficult in this case by the unique circumstances they face – the attention of the world's media, the sensitivities of their own culture and the divisions within the family.
Mr Mandela has said he wishes to be buried under a simple stone marker in Qunu, the village in the Eastern Cape where he was brought up, alongside the bodies of three of his children who have already passed away. However, the bodies are no longer there. They were moved two years ago by Mandla, the former president's eldest grandson and heir to his position as a tribal chief.
Mandla, 39, had until last night to appeal against a judge's ruling that he should return the bodies.
The case against him has been brought by other members of the family, as they jostle for control of the Mandela name and legacy.
All of this makes it highly unlikely that any decision on whether to switch off a life-support machine could be made quickly or easily, let alone unanimously.
The pressure that the family is under to provide health updates every day obviously rankles. The eldest daughter, Makaziwe Mandela, 59, said last week that the media were like "vultures waiting when a lion has attacked a buffalo".
She also indicated that she did not believe the family had the right to make a decision about whether her 94-year-old father should live or die, saying: "In our culture, the Thembu culture, you never realise the person unless the person has told you, 'Please, my children, my family, release me.' Dad hasn't said that to us."
There is also a deep cultural resistance to discussing a person's death before it happens. Beyond this, Nelson Mandela is one of the most loved and revered men in history. Any decision to allow his life to end would weigh heavily on those who had to take it.
The Mandela family is large and complex, making it hard to reach agreement anyway. Nelson Mandela has been married three times. He has six children, 17 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
He was first married in 1944, to Evelyn. They had four children together, but a daughter died in infancy, a son was killed in a car accident when he was 24 and another son was killed by Aids-related illnesses when he was 55.
They were buried in Qunu but were moved two years ago, to the village 13 miles away where Mr Mandela was born, called Mvezo.
This is the power base for Mandla, the eldest grandson, whose father's body is among those under dispute. He has been involved in the development of the village as a tourist attraction and appears to have moved the bodies in the hope that Mr Mandela would want to be buried with them in Mvezo.
However, other members of the family remain adamant that the remains should be in Qunu. So although he is now the family patriarch, Mandla was summoned to a meeting in Qunu on Tuesday with relatives and tribal elders. It was called by his aunt Makaziwe, the only surviving child of Mr Mandela's first marriage. Makaziwe has sought to take a lead within the family in recent times. Makaziwe, her children and grandchildren and those of her siblings are known in Mandela circles as the First Family.
But Nelson Mandela married Winnie within months of getting divorced in 1958. They were together for 38 years and she bore him two daughters, Zindzi and Zenani. Zenani is South Africa's ambassador to Argentina and Paraguay, and has also been closely involved in the legal battles with her father's former advisers. Both daughters by Winnie are now in their 50s. Collectively, they and their offspring are known as the Second Family.
Opinionated and eloquent, Winnie reasserted her old position as the leading Mandela voice on Friday. Holding an impromptu conference outside the house she once shared with her former husband in Soweto, she thanked the international media for being there – in pointed contrast to the attack on the press by Makaziwe.
There had been a "great improvement" in Mr Mandela's health in recent days, although he remained critically ill, said Winnie. She reminded reporters that she was speaking "as the senior member of this family".
In contrast, little has been heard of Mr Mandela's third wife since he went into hospital, although she has been there with him throughout. He married again on his 80th birthday, to Graca Machel, the widow of the president of Mozambique.
She has stayed away from the TV cameras, preferring to release a statement earlier this month saying: "We have felt the closeness of the world and the deepest meaning of strength and peace."
If a decision is to be made, there is no impetus for it to happen while the dispute about the remains of family members continues.
Of course, they may have no say in the matter. At the age of 94, the patient could suddenly deteriorate, as he appeared to do last week.
Then, as Mandla Mandela has said, his grandfather's fate may well be in "the hands of the Almighty".