Sunday, March 8, 2009



By Mondli Makhanya
Mar 07, 2009

The proud lives of great men and women have been tarnished by their children and followers

There is a story that has been running in the US press for a year that is enough to make one very ill.

Last year the world woke up to the news that the children of the great Martin Luther King jnr were engaged in a legal battle with each other over their parents’ estate.

Bernice King and Martin Luther King III accused their brother, Dexter King, of misappropriating assets from their late father’s estate. Dexter , of course, stoically defended himself, declaring how much he wished the matter could be “swiftly resolved and we can go about the business of focusing on our parents’ tremendous legacy”.

He then served his own papers on his siblings, saying they had abused resources at the King Centre , the human rights museum built in honour of the civil rights hero.

Later in the year there emerged yet another saga that sullied the King name. This time it was a dispute over Dexter’s decision to allow biographer Barbara Reynolds access to their mother, Coretta Scott-King’s, letters, personal photographs and other documents.

The other two did not want Reynolds to write the book, claiming that their mother would not have approved of her style and approach.

They had it out in public, accusing each other of all sorts of things.

It was all very ugly and unseemly.

As King’s biographer, David Garrow, told the New York Times: “It’s sad and pathetic to see the three of them behaving in this self-destructive way. Unfortunately, all of the children seem to regard their father’s legacy as first and foremost an income maximization opportunity for themselves.”

Lin Wood, a lawyer for King Inc, was sympathetic to Dexter and scathing about the other two.

“Bernice and Martin appear willing to tear down Dr King’s legacy to build their own. They are engaged in what can fairly be described as self-destructive behaviour. It’s a scorched-earth policy. And unfortunately they’ve tarnished the legacy of Dr King.”

This sorry tale has played itself out in many legacy battles. The proud lives of great men and women have been tarnished by their children and followers.

It is almost like a disease.

And it has now come to our shores.

We are seeing it play out in the battle over the legacy of Nelson Mandela.

It started with his former lawyer, Ismail Ayob, using his status and access to embark on questionable business ventures using the Mandela name.

A dirty public spat followed, with court battles and mean insults exchanged.

Then there is the simmering war between his children , which culminated in an almost blanket boycott of the old man’s 90th birthday by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s side of the family. This battle, which seems to centre on seniority in the family and on the estate, has now involved disagreements about Mandela’s funeral.

The party to which Mandela gave his life has played its part, too.

The pre-Polokwane leadership was downright dismissive of him, and treated him like a pariah.

The man who was in charge of our republic until last year was so contemptuous of Mandela that he would refuse to return his calls.

He even saw fit to subject him to a mauling by his Rottweilers during a national executive committee meeting, for daring to question his own loony Aids theories.

The post-Polokwane ANC leadership has not been much better, dragging him out of retirement for a photo opportunity with party president Jacob Zuma. For party apparatchiks, getting Mandela to cast his halo over the dark place their president inhabits was worth risking the icon’s health.

What we are doing here is truly shameful.

Humanity is given a human being of this stature once every few centuries.

This generation of humanity has Nelson Mandela. And this generation of South Africans is fortunate to have him in our midst. We were fortunate to have had him to lay the foundation stones in the building of a decent republic.

The whole world seems to know that this is a special gift, but there are many in our country who have yet to realise just what we have been given.

Mandela is mortal and at some point he will move on to that other world.

When this moment comes, will we be content merely to mourn his departure and sing his praises, or will we honour him by trying to be like him?

There are values and principles that Mandela embodies. There is a humanity and a heightened sense of public morality that shines through in his being.

We should be tapping into his values, imbibing them and making sure that we create many more citizens who can approximate him.

We should not just treat him like a mascot. And we should not sully his name with gutter battles. His children and grandchildren should be the ones showing the most respect for his legacy.

As one of the Mandela children said last year in a letter to her siblings, protesting against his name being associated with a tobacco company: “It is very important for Tata’s children to uphold the dignity of his image with all the values that he represents, and we should in no way be part of the exploitation.”