Skip to main content

Traditional beliefs pin Mandela's health to grave dispute

By Ivan Watson and Hamilton Wende, CNN
updated 7:09 AM EDT, Fri July 12, 2013
  • In South Africa's heartland many believe Mandela's condition harmed by family dispute
  • Dispute over burial site of three Mandela children was settled in court
  • Traditionalists say African methods of mediation should have been used to solve the dispute
  • One said: "When we displease [our ancestors] they bring calamity"

Ngqwara, South Africa (CNN) -- For weeks, South Africans have been holding a vigil for their first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela.

The 94-year-old statesman has been lying in a hospital in Pretoria for more than a month.

Away from the capital, in the rolling farmlands where Mandela was born and raised, many South Africans believe his precarious condition has been adversely affected by a messy public dispute between members of his family.

"Some of us believe it could be that the suffering [Mandela] is enduring in the hospital at the moment has to do with the fact that his dispute has not been resolved," said Patikile Holomisa, a lawmaker as well as the president of the Congress of Traditional Leaders.

"We believe that our ancestors through their spirits are looking after us," Holomisa added. "When we displease them, they bring calamity; all sorts of discomfort to the family."

The family dispute erupted into full public view last week when one of Mandela's daughters took one of his grandsons to court, after accusing him of secretly moving the remains of three of Mandela's buried children from the family cemetery in 2011.

Well-wishers sing outside the hospital where former South African President Nelson Mandela is being treated in Pretoria, South Africa, on Sunday, June 30. Well-wishers sing outside the hospital where former South African President Nelson Mandela is being treated in Pretoria, South Africa, on Sunday, June 30.
Crowds gather to support Mandela
Crowds gather to support Mandela Crowds gather to support Mandela
Tutu scolds feuding Mandela family
50 years since Liliesleaf Farm raid
Johannesburg township in transition

Makaziwa Mandela embraced her attorney when she won the case in a regional high court in South Africa's Eastern Cape Province. "It's a private matter," was her only comment to the media at the court.

The next day a sheriff used heavy metal pincers to snap open the padlock on a gate at the village of Mandela's grandson, Mandla. South African authorities retrieved three coffins and bought them for reburial in Qunu, the small village where the former president maintains a modest home.

"I still feel that it was a premature act," said Mandla Mandela, in an exclusive interview with CNN on Wednesday.

"The issue should have been exhausted through internal structures of the family and unfortunately that wasn't seen," he added.

The 39-year-old grandson was speaking on a windy hilltop in the village of Ngqwara, where he had just distributed blankets to several dozen elderly men and women. The crowd began the ceremony by reciting prayers. Later, some elderly women sang and danced in gratitude after receiving their donations.

Mandla Mandela is a chief, or traditional ruler, in this poverty-stricken corner of South Africa.

In this deeply traditional heartland, there are other prominent community leaders who agree that the Mandela family should have turned to distinctly African methods of mediation to solve their dispute, rather than Western-style courts.

"If the people are going to abandon the roots to which Madiba belongs and go and hang on to the branches of a foreign tree, such as the Westernized courts, then there is going to be a problem," said Holomisa.

The Mandela family dispute has exposed differences between the culture and values of rural black South Africa and the country's modern legal and medical system.

Some here argue it is unnatural and unfair to keep an ailing man alive with modern medical machines.

Others fear Mandela may suffer longer in hospital, because the remains of his three children were moved without accompanying prayers.

"There was no ritual that that was performed when the bones were moved," explains Vuyo Teti, a 25-year-old agricultural university student.

"The old people are saying you need to consider the spirit and the spiritual being, not only the bones."

Though raised in Qunu, Mandela migrated as a young man to South Africa's largest city Johannesburg, where he eventually opened the country's first black law firm.

Mandela then spent the bulk of his adult life, either imprisoned by the former Apartheid regime or struggling in freedom to establish democracy in South Africa.

Over the last decade, he retired from public view and chose to move back to the land of his childhood.

Traditional community leaders like Holomisa cite that as proof that Mandela wished to return to his roots.

"He straddled both worlds, the African and the western," said Holomisa.

"This man was a traditional man," he added. "And in the twilight of his life, he should be allowed to be who he was."

Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:28 PM EST, Sun December 15, 2013
Candles are lit under a portrait of Neslon Mandela before the funeral ceremony of South African former president Nelson Mandela in Qunu on December 15, 2013.
As 95 candles glowed in the background, mourners gathered for Nelson Mandela's state funeral Sunday.
updated 6:36 AM EST, Sun December 15, 2013
One candle burns for each year of Nelson Mandela's life, as family, friends, dignitaries and celebrities gather in his ancestral home, Qunu.
updated 5:36 AM EST, Sun December 15, 2013
CNN's Robyn Curnow is inside the Mandela family compound in Qunu as the state funeral service is ongoing.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Sat December 14, 2013
Don't expect the man who fought to end apartheid and then led South Africa as its first black president to spend eternity pushing up just daisies.
updated 10:50 PM EST, Sat December 14, 2013
Not only is Nelson Mandela the former president of South Africa, but he is also a father, grandfather and even a great-grandfather.
updated 11:13 PM EST, Sat December 14, 2013
Nelson Mandela once said his wife, Graca Machel, makes him "bloom like a flower."
updated 3:49 AM EST, Sun December 15, 2013
South African pays tribute and thanks Nelson Mandela at the former leader's funeral in Qunu.
updated 3:45 AM EST, Sun December 15, 2013
South African President Jacob Zuma sings at the funeral of Nelson Mandela.
updated 2:25 AM EST, Sun December 15, 2013
Anti-apartheid veteran Ahmed Kathrada spent 26 years imprisoned with his close friend and confidant Nelson Mandela.
updated 11:08 PM EST, Sat December 14, 2013
The coffin carrying Nelson Mandela's body arrived Saturday in his ancestral village of Qunu, where he'll be buried.
updated 4:28 PM EST, Sat December 14, 2013
Crowds gather as Nelson Mandela's funeral convoy arrives at Mthatha Airport in South Africa's Eastern Cape.
updated 2:32 PM EST, Fri December 13, 2013
Beloved icon Nelson Mandela will be laid to rest on the farm where he grew up. CNN's Robyn Curnow gives an inside look.
updated 11:44 AM EST, Fri December 13, 2013
It might be timely to put aside out-of-date and ill-informed views of Africa, and see it the way Africans seem to: With a high level of optimism.
updated 11:40 PM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
Mandela emerged from prison to lead his country out of racist apartheid rule with a message of reconciliation that inspired the world.
updated 11:32 AM EST, Fri December 6, 2013
The late South African President reflects on his imprisonment and his fight against apartheid.
updated 9:57 AM EST, Tue December 10, 2013
Nelson Mandela, hailed for leading South Africa out of apartheid, wanted to be remembered as part of a collective and not in isolation.
updated 5:26 AM EST, Fri December 5, 2014
Nelson Mandela
From revolutionary to revered statesman, Nelson Mandela left his inspirational mark on the world.
updated 5:19 AM EST, Fri December 5, 2014
The only known footage of Nelson Mandela while at Robben Prison shows inside his cell and the former president in 1977.
updated 12:45 PM EST, Fri December 6, 2013
Mandela spent almost three decades in jail. But he had two Indian goddesses and a 17th century playwright for company.
updated 7:52 AM EST, Fri December 6, 2013
He was loved and admired the world over, profiled in books and movies. But even he has little-known facts buried in his biographies.
updated 6:00 PM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
A file photo showing South African Nelson Mandela taking the presidential oath on May 10, 1994 during his inauguration at the Union Building in Pretoria.
April 27, 1994, was the crowning moment in Nelson Mandela's life -- the day South Africa held its first elections open to citizens of every race.
From a village birth, to political activism, to prison and emergence as a worldwide leader.
updated 6:40 PM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
"No one is born hating another person ..." and more from Nelson Mandela in his own words
updated 8:47 AM EST, Fri December 6, 2013
South African former President Nelson Mandela holds the Jules Rimet World cup, 15 May 2004 at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich.
"Sport has the power to change the world," Nelson Mandela once said -- and eloquently supported his claim.
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Wed June 26, 2013
Browse through intimate images of Nelson Mandela, including the earliest known photograph believed to be taken in 1938.
updated 8:26 AM EST, Fri December 6, 2013
The Special AKA's "Free Nelson Mandela" became anti-apartheid anthem, and led to Mandela's release from prison after 27 years.
How will you remember Mandela? Send us your stories, memories and photographs.