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 Mr. Mandela's eldest daughter, Makaziwe Mandela, described foreign media recording the nation's vigil outside the hospital where her father lies ill as racist "vultures."
Tuesday's court battle in the Eastern Cape town of Mtatha came after 16 family members, led by Makaziwe Mandela, took court action Friday to force Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Mandela's birthplace. The move would help ensure that his grandfather would be buried there, because Mr. 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, Mr. Mandela's home village. They have also called in the police. The Port Elizabath Herald reported Tuesday that authorities, at the family's request, had launched a criminal investigation against 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.
With the 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 Mr. Mandela's handprint.
Mandla Mandela 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 on Tuesday quoted Mandla's half-brother, Ndaba (also Makgato's son), as saying Mandla was born out of wedlock and thus, under traditional law, had no right to be chief.
Tuesday's court battle involved the graves of Makgato; another of Mr. 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.
In court Tuesday, Mandla opposed the interim court order that he return the exhumed bones, arguing that the order wasn't valid.
The court adjourned late Tuesday, ordering both sides of the family to present written arguments by 10 a.m. local time today.
If Mandla loses his bid to overturn the order, he would have to return the remains for reburial by 3 p.m. today.