PRETORIA, South Africa -- As South Africans continued their long and painful vigil Tuesday for critically ill elder statesman Nelson Mandela, his family was in court in a Shakespearean battle over the bones of his three dead children.
The drama -- with accusations of illegitimacy, appeals to the family's ancestors, allegations of secret exhumations of family bones and a battle over a chieftaincy -- has horrified much of the nation.
The court battle follows a week in which Mandela's oldest daughter, Makaziwe Mandela, described foreign media recording the nation's vigil outside the hospital where her father lies ill as racist "vultures." The comment triggered an acerbic editorial in one South African newspaper: "Evidently grace and dignity are not inherited."
Tuesday's court battle in the Eastern Cape town of Mtatha came after 16 family members, led by Makaziwe, took court action Friday to force Nelson Mandela's grandson, Mandla Mandela, to return the bones of three of the elder statesman's children. The court Friday granted an interim order that he return the bodies, which he contested Tuesday.
According to the family members, Mandla, who is chief of the abaThembu clan, secretly dug up the bones in the dead of night without informing the rest of the family. When the family opened the graves last week, with Mandela gravely ill, there were no bones to be found.
South African media reported that Mandla had them reburied in 2011 in his own area, Mvezo, the elder Mandela's birthplace. The move would help ensure his grandfather was buried there, because Nelson Mandela had expressed his wish to be buried next to his children. Mandla has been building a tourist center at Mvezo, with a hotel and other facilities.
The opposing family faction insists that the bones must be moved back to a family grave site in Qunu, Nelson Mandela's home village.
They have also called in the police. The Port Elizabeth Herald reported Tuesday that authorities, at the family's request, had launched a criminal investigation of Mandla for allegedly tampering illegally with graves.
The bitter family squabble, a far cry from the vision of reconciliation and tolerance that Nelson Mandela represented for the nation, disgusted and saddened many South Africans.
"Why must such things happen?" said Alphina Kutu, a nurse who came to pay her respects to Mandela on Tuesday at the hospital where he is being treated. "I feel so bad about it," she said, gazing over the deep piles of flowers, letters, artworks and other tributes left at the gates of the hospital.
With former president's health fading, some saw the battle pitting aunt against nephew as a struggle for supremacy in the family and for control of the money generated by the Mandela name. Makaziwe is involved in another court action to get control of a trust fund containing money from the sale of art depicting Mandela's handprint.
Mandla inherited the position as chief after his father, Makgato, died in 2005 and Nelson Mandela passed on the role, instead suggesting Mandla for the position.
South African newspapers reported Tuesday that Mandla's half-brother, Ndaba (also Makgato's son), as saying that Mandla was born out of wedlock and thus, under traditional law, had no right to be chief.
"Mandla is a power-hungry, self-obsessed man who is only concerned about himself,” Ndaba told the Daily Dispatch newspaper in the Eastern Cape. Ndaba would be next in the royal line but told the newspaper he had no plans at present to claim the chieftaincy.
Some reports suggest that the family is determined to strip Mandla of his chieftaincy and to bar him from attending his grandfather's funeral.
Tuesday's court battle involved the graves of Makgato; another of Mandela's sons, Thembekile, who was killed in a car accident in 1969, and a daughter, also named Makaziwe, who died in infancy. All were children of his first marriage to Evelyn Mase.
The Mandela family is so steeped in tragedy that at times resembles the Kennedy clan. Mandela watched Makaziwe die of meningitis as an infant. He couldn't attend Thembekile's funeral because he was in jail. And Makgato's death of an AIDS-related illness came when the disease carried a deep stigma in South Africa.
In court Tuesday, Mandla opposed the interim court order that he return the exhumed bones, arguing that the order wasn't valid.
The interim court order issued last week gave him until July 29 to respond, but the order was supposed to set a June 29 deadline. According to local media, Mandla's legal team took this as a "gift from the ancestors" and a sign he had ancestral support.
Members of the opposing family faction reportedly believe that the ancestors are angry over of the removal of the bones from Qunu, leading to the senior Mandela's repeated health setbacks.