Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday on Thursday is a milestone for an icon of equality that under most circumstances would be happily celebrated by South Africans and admirers around the world.
Of course, this year’s birthday approached as his nation monitored news updates on his frail condition — but also looks on with some discomfort as his family squabbles over his future burial place and his fortune.
Mandela was admitted to a Pretoria hospital with a lung infection on June 8. Since then, news about Mandela has been dominated by sordid family rifts.
Chief among them is an ongoing saga of his burial place. He once said he would like to be buried near the remains of his three deceased children. In recent weeks, a judge, acting on behalf of some of Mandela's relatives, ordered those remains returned to Qunu, where Mandela has a home. In 2011, one of his grandsons, a tribal chief, had moved the remains 14 miles to the village of Mvezo, where he was building a hotel and other facilities — all in evident expectation of attracting tourists to Mandela’s final resting place.
The soap opera also included reports of other family members cashing in on his legacy. News accounts reported that:
-- Two Mandela granddaughters have a clothing line called Long Walk to Freedom, the name of Nelson Mandela’s 1994 autobiography and the story of how he emerged from 27 years in jail to lead South Africa from white-minority rule to democracy. The granddaughters also star in a reality TV show called "Being Mandela."
-- A Mandela daughter and granddaughter sell wine under the House of Mandela label, which displays the family tree on its website.
-- That same daughter and a half-sister filed a lawsuit seeking to remove their father’s lawyers as directors of two companies Mandela created, even though Mandela once said he didn’t want those daughters to control his financial affairs. The women’s lawyer was once fired by Mandela for failing to properly account for sales of his artwork.
Marketing experts see money at the root of it all. "There is absolutely no doubt that if you take Nelson Mandela's name and image and you put that onto something that you sell, you are able to sell it at a premium. Clearly millions will be made," Roger Sinclair, a former marketing professor, told Bloomberg News.
Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu likened the feud over the final resting place to spitting in Mandela's face.
"Your anguish now is the nation’s anguish — and the world’s,” Tutu said in a public statement to family members. “We want to embrace you, to support you, to shine our love for Madiba through you. Please, may we not besmirch his name."
Despite the rifts, many in South Africa will honor Mandela on Thursday with public service. A Mandela Day campaign is asking ordinary people to volunteer 67 minutes to charity or service projects — a minute for every year Mandela served South Africa through public service, politics and prison.
His millions of admirers around the world can hope that the anniversary of his birth is celebrated more in that positive vein than in dwelling on family feuds. That would be the most fitting tribute to a man who gave his life to justice.