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Winnie Mandela Lays Legal Claim to Ex-Husband's Qunu Home

FILE - Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela's former wife, walks away after paying her respect to former South African President Nelson Mandela during the lying in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, Dec. 11, 2013.

Nelson Mandela's second wife, Winnie, has launched a legal challenge to the will of the late South African anti-apartheid leader. Her lawyers say she is seeking for her children to be in charge of Mandela's ancestral home at Qunu in the Eastern Cape, where he was buried in December. A protracted legal battle could sully the family's reputation further in what is the latest in a string of feuds among factions of the Mandela family.

Lawyer Mvuzo Notyesi says the Qunu house should be given to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's two daughters, Zindzi and Zenani, and their children, based on customary law.

In a letter to the executor of the Mandela estate, he argued it is “the only home that the children and grandchildren of Madikizela-Mandela can conduct their own customs and tradition," but all of Mandela’s children could also access the property.

People can legally own land deeds in South Africa, or the freehold. Alternatively, traditional leaders have the power to allocate parcels of land to people, but they do not become the official owner. Therefore, the issue may have to be decided under traditional customary law, says Professor Stephen Tuson from Wits University in Johannesburg.

“My first crisp question would be what was Nelson Mandela’s title to that home - if anything? That would be definitive in my view," said Tuson. "If he had the title deeds then he can do with his home what he wishes. If he was not the title holder, if it was not his, but allocated to him, well then there is a little more wiggle room here. Then we would have to look at undocumented, largely, customary law and here the lines can get very blurred.”

The challenge could signal the end of a truce between family factions, potentially triggering the first legal dispute since the former president’s death last December.

What led to divorce

Madikizela-Mandela, an avid anti-apartheid activist, was the second wife to South Africa’s first black president. They divorced in 1996 after 38 years of marriage after it emerged she had cheated on him during his 27 years in apartheid prisons.

Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 before becoming the country's first democratically elected president in 1994.

Despite her prominence at services to honor the former statesman after his death, Madikizela-Mandela was left nothing from Mandela's $4.1 million estate, which was divided among his family, the ruling African National Congress party, former staff and several schools.

"The view we hold is that the aforesaid property belongs to the generation of Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as their common and parental home," said the letter, dated July 18, the former president’s birthday.

Family feuds

The spat is the latest in a string of feuds among factions of the Mandela family. As Mandela struggled to fight for his life in the months leading up to his death, his extensive family squabbled over his estate and burial place.

The family’s reputation was further tarnished when Mandela's grandson Mandla exhumed the bodies of three of Mandela's children from Qunu and moved them to the nearby village of Mvezo, Mandela’s birthplace and where Mandla had built a visitor center dedicated to his grandfather. Mandela was critically ill in a hospital at the time.

The lawyers’ letter said Madikizela-Mandela’s legal bid was neither attacking nor contesting the will but was “only asserting the traditional and customary rights on what may be contentious in the future”.