JOHANNESBURG: Nelson Mandela's family has come under new scrutiny after a South African university law clinic said it gave free legal aid to a group of the former president's relatives on the grounds that some are poor.
The revelation was met with skepticism in South Africa where poverty is endemic and a number of commentators have questioned whether a clinic that is supposed to help the needy was instead seeking benefits from association with the high-profile family.
Many South Africans were already troubled by the Mandela family feud, which has coincided with the long illness of the 95-year-old anti-apartheid leader. Mandela was taken to a hospital on June 8 to be treated for a lung infection; the government says he is improving but remains in critical condition.
Mandela's family members went to court against a grandson of Mandela who exhumed the anti-apartheid leader's three deceased children from Mandela's hometown, Qunu, and reburied them in nearby Mvezo. The group won the case with help from the Rhodes University Law Clinic and the bodies were reburied in their original location.
The grandson, Mandla Mandela, is the oldest male Mandela heir and a tribal chief in Mvezo, where his grandfather was born.
Rhodes University said it became involved when the Mandela family urgently requested help from Wesley Hayes, a deputy director of the law clinic who was "previously known" to the family.
Among four family members deemed by the law clinic to be indigent and therefore deserving of aid are 22-year-old Mbuso and 20-year-old Andile, younger brothers of Mandla.
They were aligned in the case with a dozen other relatives including Mandela's three surviving daughters, one of whom is South Africa's ambassador in Argentina, and Graca Machel, Mandela's wife and a former first lady of Mozambique.
Susan Smailes, director of the special projects for the university, said Wednesday that one objective of the clinic in taking the prominent case was to highlight the kind of issues that clinic lawyers are pursuing. In a statement on Monday, the university gave other reasons.
"It is not uncommon for law clinics to represent groups of people, including some who are not indigent, in litigation involving matters that impact on human rights and the socio-economic conditions of disadvantaged communities," it said.
"The view was that Mr. Mandla Mandela's approach to deciding this family matter was at the expense of women's voices in the family," it said. It noted "tension" between the role of women in traditional matters and women's rights enshrined in South Africa's constitution.
Freddy Pilusa, a spokesman for Mandla Mandela, said the dispute had nothing to do with women's rights and that it was "absurd" to suggest that any member of the Mandela family is indigent.
"That is really tantamount to taking from the poor and giving to the rich," Pilusa said in reference to the provision of legal aid to the family.
Hayes, a salaried employee of the law clinic, did not receive additional payment for representing the family, according to Smailes. She said case costs would be covered by Mandla Mandela because he lost.
On its website, the law clinic says a key objective is to help those who can't afford private lawyers, "thereby increasing access to justice to the poorest of the poor and creating a greater respect for the rule of law."