Mandela Family Battle Brewing Over Name, Inheritance

A modernist Mandela statue
A modernist Mandela statue
Sébastien Hervieu

JOHANNESBURG"As long as he's alive, his family members still refrain, but you’ll see when he passes away ...”

Earlier this year, a man close to several of Nelson Mandela’s relatives told Le Monde of his fear that the unity displayed during the moments of reverence around South Africa's global icon of reconciliation, would eventually give way to disputes over the lucrative family inheritance.

These clashes had already begun to surface even before the former president’s death. It was in April when South Africa learned that two of Nelson Mandela’s daughters, Makaziwe and Zenani, had taken court action — backed by 17 members of the family — against the aging leader's friends: his former lawyer, George Bozos, and the former minister for housing, Tokyo Sexwale, who also had spent many years imprisoned on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Verde.

Makaziwe, daughter of Evelyn (Nelson Mandela’s first wife) and Zenani, daughter of Winnie Mandela (his second wife) demanded that the two men resign, along with Nelson Mandela’s lawyer, Bally Chuene, from their positions as administrators for two funds valued at around $1.7 million. These companies had been created to sell watercolors on which the hero’s handprint had been reproduced.

Lack of respect

Backed by Ismail Ayob, one of Nelson Mandela’s former lawyers, whom he'd broken off from in 2004, the heirs accused their father’s friends and associates of having taken control of these funds and refused to provide financial aid to family members. The trio responded that Mandela had appointed them himself.

In a statement that was handed over to a Johannesburg court, the lawyer Bally Chuene says that, in April 2005, the former head of state had summoned his wife Graça Machel, his daughters, as well as George Bizos and Tokyo Sewale, to meet in his Johannesburg home.

During this meeting, Mandela clearly told Makaziwe and Zenani he didn’t want them to meddle with his business, Bally Chuene stated in a text that the South African press made public.

In a testimony that was also handed over to court, Bizos mentions his own concern when he found out in late 2011 about an attempt by family members to distribute almost the entire capital of these trusts among Mandela’s children and grandchildren.

Nelson Mandela’s close personnel feared that the family members were looking to get hold of the wealth to squander it. The grandchildren soon reacted, claiming they were trying to portray them as “insensitive money-grabbers" who lacked any respect for their grandfather.

In July, most of Mandela’s grandchildren did 67 minutes of public service as a tribute to the 67 years during which his served humanity by fighting the domination by the white minority and racial harmony when he finally became president.

At the end of August, both Mandela’s daughters finally decided to drop their judicial action. “They were fully aware of their father’s will, and they eventually understood that we had the necessary elements to prove it,” Bizos told Le Monde.

Mandela’s own personal assets were never disclosed, and the family’s total holdings is also unknown, but its members are believed to have stakes in some 110 companies, according to the Afrikaner newspaper Beeld.

Don't Disney-ize me

Carrying Mandela’s name is an asset. Most of his three children, 17 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren intend to make the most of this image. “They are part of the Mandelas, they’re allowed to use their name, and now they do it more and more, because they know Madiba can no longer prevent it,” a head of the Mandela Foundation says, using the nickname many South Africans call the now deceased leader. “You can Kennedy-ize my name but not Disney-ize it”, Nelson Mandela allegedly once said.

“Madiba didn’t want his name and image to be commercially exploited. Disagreeing with this inevitably leads to family tensions,” the director adds.

The Foundation aims to prevent such abusive uses: “When the children or grandchildren come to see us to ask for our signature beneath a contract (…), we try to introduce clauses and guarantees.” An eclectic series of projects are still emerging. Makaziwe Mandela commercialized wine called House of Mandela. A clothing line named Long Walk to Freedom, like the former prisoner’s autobiography, was launched. Two granddaughters took part this year in a reality show called “Being Mandela” — the episodes aired only in the U.S.

The Mandela Foundation has not been left behind. In 2011, it started selling polo shirts with the label 46664, Nelson Mandela’s prisoner number at Robben Island. The institution registered more than 60 trademarks such as “Nelson Mandela” or “Madiba” at the World Intellectual Property Organization, to ensure the exclusivity on access rights. Granted, the aim is to hunt down usurpers — but it is also a way of preserving the value of their brands.

Political ends

In July, Mandla Mandela was also in the middle of a different kind of controversy. Members of his family found out that, in Mandela’s childhood village of Qunu, the grandson had exhumed the mortal remains of the former president’s three sons to have them buried in Mvezo, where the hero was born. The grandson is suspected of trying to force the family into having Nelson Mandela’s body buried in the new family tomb, where he is having a large tourist complex built. Following a violent dispute shown on television, the bodies will be reburied in Qunu.

Mandla Mandela does not only reign on this lost corner of South Africa's Eastern Cape. The 39-year-old is also a member of the South African Parliament. At a time when it is losing electoral support, the African National Congress is trying to remain connected to the name “Mandela.” In 2012, Zenani Mandela was appointed South African ambassador in Argentina.

In July 2012, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the controversial second wife, who is also a member of parliament, accused her party of "treating the family in a cavalier way,” and appealing to them only to “use it for political ends.”

Then in April, the ANC was accused of exploiting the image of Nelson Mandela himself, one year away from general elections. A 40-second video showed the former president in his home, in Johannesburg, sitting on a couch with an impassive look on his face. Next to him, President Jacob Zuma and several heads of the ANC were laughing and taking photos of themselves beside the sick and elderly man.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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