They have played tug-of-war with the corpses of his children. Squabbled over his charitable trust. Smeared each other as adulterers and liars. And accused each other of trying to milk his fame.
As Nelson Mandela lies gravely ill in a Pretoria hospital, his heir and family are turning his health crisis into a circus. Trading on the Mandela name and legacy, they are tussling over celebrity, status and money. Things got so poisonous Rev. Sonwabile Msotyana recently preached a Sunday sermon in Mandela's home village, Qunu, urging the family to "close the cracks created by Satan." It's that bad.
It is also the cruelest of ironies: A selfless Nobel Peace laureate, national liberator and reconciler finds himself surrounded by grasping, bickering relatives in the twilight of his life. Mandela deserves better from his nearest and dearest.
Politicians have compounded the mess by shamelessly trading on Mandela's celebrity, and the media have prematurely declared him dead. That left Winnie Mandela accusing South African President Jacob Zuma of "insensitivity," and the family reviling media "vultures."
While nothing can sully Mandela's image or dim his legacy, this dissing of an icon is a shabby recompense for his service.
His grandson, heir and clan leader Mandla Mandela plumbed new depths on Thursday by taking aim at family rivals and poking the factious clan's rawest nerve. He openly accused his brother, Mbuso, of illicitly fathering a child with Mandla's now-ex-wife, something the family doesn't want to talk about. Mbuso denies it.
It was Mandla, too, who exhumed the bodies of his father Makgatho and two other of Mandela's children from Qunu two years ago without the family's knowledge and moved them to Mvezo, where Mandela was born and where Mandla has built a shrine to his grandfather. Other relatives saw that as a bid to ensure that Mandela, too, is buried in Mvezo, making it a lucrative place of pilgrimage. The bodies were dug up again on Thursday on a court order at the family's request and returned to Qunu, where Mandela has said he wants to be buried.
Mandla also lashed out at Mandela's daughter Makaziwe and others for taking Mandela "to court for his monies," referring to a bitter legal disputed over control of a family trust worth millions.
This shameful self-promotion, avarice and slander is unworthy of South Africa's great icon. Still, millions have prayed for his recovery and reflected on his heroism. Amid the Mandela family's dysfunction, a grateful nation holds him in their hearts.