QUNU, SOUTH AFRICA – A convoy of cars and buses decked with balloons streamed into Qunu on Saturday as the childhood home of Nelson Mandela hosted a wedding and enjoyed a moment of respite from the deep uncertainty caused by the health of its most celebrated son.
Well-wishers flocked to the celebration within sight of the former president’s large house as the bride walked into a crowded church.
A remote and tiny place nestled in a valley in the green hills of the Eastern Cape, Qunu has experienced three weeks of heartache since Mandela was hospitalized. But even as pessimism eased over the imminence of his death, the village was bracing itself for the spotlight when the world finally comes to bid him farewell.
Qunu, the village where the anti-apartheid hero has felt most at home, is a place that has both shaped Mandela and been profoundly shaped by him. It is the heart of his extended family, his beloved childhood home and the place he harked back to often during his 27 years in prison. It supplied the inspiration for the political philosophy that emerged during his incarceration.
These identities explain why Qunu’s expected role as Mandela’s final resting place fires passions so deeply, and why last month in a courtroom in the sprawling town of Mthatha, members of Mandela’s close family gathered to discuss an issue that has cast a shadow over the former president’s most recent and most grave illness.
At the center of the case is a dispute that has pitted two factions of Mandela’s family against each other, centering as it does on Mandela’s wishes — expressed two decades ago — about his funeral arrangements.
Then Mandela asked to be buried in a simple ceremony in his childhood village home. The man known affectionately as “Tata,” “Madiba” and as “Dalibhunga” had an additional request — that he be buried with his three deceased children, Makgatho, Makaziwe and Thembikile, in Qunu.
At the heart of the controversy is the disclosure that, unknown to Mandela, his sometimes controversial grandson Mandla, who has clashed in the past with other members of his family, had secretly reburied the three family members in the village of Mandela’s birth, Mvezo — where Mandla is an influential tribal chief.
Although members of Mandela’s family have been reluctant to discuss the issue — not least as the 94-year-old remains critically ill — the story that has gradually emerged is of a bitter feud that has ended up before the courts after a stormy family meeting last month.
If feuds and squabbles among Mandela’s family are nothing new, this one has more troubling aspects.
It has struck a discordant note in the midst of a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama who met members of Mandela’s family Saturday, even as South African President Jacob Zuma voiced his hope that Mandela might recover.
It has sharply underlined both the deep sensitivities over the arrangements for Mandela’s eventual death — in a culture where discussing an impending death in public is taboo — and over who within the family, and in South Africa’s wider society, will claim and shape his legacy.
By the court hearing’s end it was those opposed to Mandla who emerged victorious, with an order from the presiding judge directing that the moved bodies be reinterred in Qunu at the site high on a hill that residents say is being prepared for Mandela himself.
The court order, however, is only the latest round in a murky affair that has stirred animosities within Mandela’s family, pitting Mandla against another group led by Mandela’s eldest daughter, Makaziwe, that began — if reported accounts are true — when Mandla exhumed the bodies in 2011 to have them buried in Mvezo without telling other members of his family.
Little is known for certain: The affair has emerged in unauthorized and off-the-cuff remarks, including from one of the family’s lawyers, Wesley Hayes, who confirmed that a court hearing had taken place behind closed doors “due to the sensitivity” of the case.
The disclosure that Mandela’s children had been secretly reburied in Mvezo has appeared all the more shocking for how it was discovered — only after preparatory work was begun at the family grave site in Qunu to move the bodies to where Mandela will eventually be buried.
Opening the graves, the undertaker found no remains, leading other family members to challenge Mandla.
As the details have leaked out piecemeal, they have lifted the lid on long rivalries within the family of three-times married Mandela, not least over the guardianship of his memory.
Mandla’s detractors have stoked the suggestion that his aim all along has been to have Mandela interred in Mvezo, where he has built a museum and guesthouses.
The controversy over where Mandela should eventually be buried has come amidst a continuing battle over the Mandela trust fund that has broken into the open again, and which also pits Makaziwe against Mandla.
In a third sphere too — the political — Makaziwe has warned off other parties from attempting to “misappropriate” the legacy of the African National Congress’ most celebrated figure.
As noted by William Gumede, a South African political analyst interviewed by The Washington Post, the divided ANC’s leadership — facing growing challenges to its authority — has also displayed a strong interest in managing Mandela’s legacy as it relates to them.
“Some ANC leaders want to cling on to brand Mandela, as members are leaving the party,” said Gumede. “They say, ‘Stay, this is still the party of Mandela.’ “
It is a charge of politicizing the legacy of Mandela that the ANC has emphatically rejected.
Inevitably, perhaps, last month’s court case has unintentionally drawn attention to many of the most difficult issues that have come to swirl around Mandela.
If the intense media interest in Mandela’s hospitalization has often seemed unseemly to members of his family — Makaziwe has called journalists “vultures” — it is because issues of family privacy have collided with the affection felt in South Africa and globally for an international figure. Mandela’s towering legacy has long overshadowed his other reality: that of the frail and elderly man now being treated in Pretoria.
That contradiction has been felt most keenly in Qunu, where the issues of memory, identity and place converge. It was his early experience in Qunu that would supply a key strand of Mandela’s philosophy as it emerged during his 27 years in prison — ubuntu, or the idea of “human brotherhood.”
What that entailed — as Mandela’s friend and authorized biographer Anthony Sampson described it in Mandela — was a “quality of mutual responsibility and compassion.” “He often quoted the proverb ‘umuntu ngumuntu ngabuntu,’ ” wrote Sampson, “which he would translate as ‘A person is a person because of other people.’ Mandela regarded ubuntu as part of a general philosophy of serving one’s fellow men.”
Mandela himself wrote that he had learned to value the idea as a teenager observing life in Qunu and at the tribal court whose ruling class he belonged to.
It is precisely for this reason that Qunu has come to be so important to Mandela’s own story.