Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Hands off the estate tussle between the Mandela children

By Melo Magolego

One uneventful day on a busy street in Bophuthatswana there lay, riddled with bullets, the body of my grandfather. My paternal grandfather had two wives and was a migrant labourer. Before retirement, he made his way by delivering those cast iron manhole covers which we use to obscure our sordid secrets. He had no formal education, no known blue blooded lineage nor was he on the chief’s advisory council. Nonetheless Kgoshi Mampuru, a Bapedi chief, found it useful to befriend him and pick his brain whenever my grandfather made his way home to Sekhukhune. After the sudden death of my grandfather, his estate reflected a life spent delivering manholes.

The eldest son in the senior family then became the putative head of the family, which in this case happened to be my father. This gave me front row view of how petty and emotionally draining grieving for a departed can become. Some people grieve by blaming someone, some grieve by venting, some grieve by gossiping and yet some grieve by demanding compensation for their loss. In such an emotionally charged environment, the estate of my grandfather became a focal point. A life delivering manholes, two wives and a bountiful progeny do not make for much of an estate. The disappointment of such a reality was too much for some who were grieving. The subsequent lobbying and witch hunts, strained relationships and became emotionally damaging. Although the process was for the most part civil but in many other families it is not. It is precisely having witnessed this, that I ask of the media to let the Mandela children to heal in their own way, at their own pace, away from the glare of the judgmental public gaze. In effect to refrain from reporting on any happenings related to the squabbles related to the estate of Mandela. I shudder to think how irrevocably damaging, public attention, during that period, would have been for my family.

The politics within a family unit are often a microcosm of institutional politics. In the US, the partisanship that has come to characterise present-day politics is in part blamed on the rise of 24-hour news channels. This is because the unrelenting stream of news makes it difficult to have negotiations because every concession, every compromise is magnified by the repetitive stream of breaking news. Thus each compromise becomes a betrayal of principle and a weakness of conviction. This hampers the very give and take which is negotiation. This sentiment is nowhere better captured than in the February 5 1958 speech by the UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld. He said:

“Thus the mass media can be misused under certain circumstances for harmful propaganda. Where competitive conditions prevail there is also a tendency to play up conflict because conflict usually seems more dramatic than agreement. For the same competitive reasons there is also the natural desire to be ‘first with the story’. In international affairs, this may result in premature and often poorly informed publicity about an issue at a time when the privacy of quiet diplomacy is essential to achieving a constructive result.”

The continued publicity of the affairs of the Mandela estate creates conditions which may hinder internal agreement within the family. This is because each slight, each concession is played up to the public and hence may engender counter-productive public retaliation. The Mandla press conference comes to mind, so too the purported changing of locks by Makaziwe.

Secondly, groups of individuals under the aegis of a single decision maker often suffer a chaotic transition period on the sudden removal of such an individual. The centrality of the patriarch in black families exposes them to this chaos. This is not to say that black families can only function harmoniously under to control of a patriarch or at worst a dictator. No. What this means is that the democratic fabric of a group of individuals gets warped by having to endure a long period under the command of a central person. Hence it is natural that in order for the democratic fabric to straighten itself out, there would be a transition period which may become chaotic. This effect may be seen in the transition of African nations from colonialism to democratic rule. In the Mandela family any chaotic transition should not be marked for special attention but should rather be allowed to play itself out. A continual stream of reportage on this process hinders this transition and further warps it.

Thirdly, any perceived benevolence on the part of Nelson Mandela should not be expected from his progeny. It is unfair to expect that because Mandela made exemplary sacrifices for this country that his family should be held in high scrutiny. They too are like ordinary people with challenges. Any sacrifices of the father should not be unduly borne by the sons and daughters. Continually reporting on them implicitly imposes this scrutiny.

Don’t misunderstand me. I like many others, first thing on Sunday, indulge my voyeuristic bent by trawling the Shwashwi pages of my Sunday tabloids. However, at some point we need to ask ourselves as a society: to what end do we still require sacrifices from the Mandelas? I am not asking for broad restraint on reporting about the Mandela family but only narrow restraint in matters relating to his estate. This is not unprecedented because even in the US, the populace elected not twice but four times a paraplegic president in the heydays of hyper masculinity. FDR’s disability was not reported on. Surely we owe Mandela that much?

Melo is also a Fulbright scholar with a masters in engineering from Caltech. Twitter: @melomagolego

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