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Rhodes Law Clinic defends decision to fund ‘indigent’ Mandelas

Part of the reason for the clinic's decision, the university said on Tuesday, was because Mandla Mandela appeared to be silencing the voices of women in the Mandela family. This meant that the case fell within the clinic's mandate to pursue cases that "impact on the human rights and socio-economic conditions of disadvantaged communities".

The Sunday Times revealed this week that the law clinic provided funding to Makaziwe Mandela and 15 other members of the family who succeeded in asking the Eastern Cape High Court in Mthatha to issue an order forcing Mandla Mandela to move the remains of three of Nelson Mandela's children from Mvezo Great Place to Qunu.

Their instructing attorney in that court application was Wesley Hayes, who is also a the deputy director of the law clinic.

Also on Sunday, Mandla Mandela visited his grandfather in hospital in Pretoria, declaring afterwards that Nelson Mandela's health was improving.

He said he had asked his lawyers to write to the Rhodes vice-chancellor Saleem Badat to discuss the reasons why the law clinic saw fit to provide the funding.

But on Tuesday, Susan Smailes, legal adviser to the vice-chancellor, said no such request had been received.

No contact
"The vice-chancellor personally checked with all his staff to see if there was any request. There is nothing at all. The vice-chancellor has not been contacted, verbally or in writing," said Smailes.

The vice-chancellor personally helped author a statement released by the university on Monday, confirming that, at the time the application for funding was received, the law clinic was under the impression that "a number of the Mandelas are indigents", Smailes said.

The statement says that an objective of the Rhodes University Law Clinic is to provide free legal advice and services to people who are deemed to be indigent.

"Indigence is assessed on an individual basis and not a family or group basis. Hayes was instructed on an urgent basis by members of the Mandela family. Hayes was previously known to the Mandela family.

"At the time of the instruction it was established that a number of the applicants were indigent. A call was made to the management of the law clinic requesting permission to take on the matter. Permission was granted as the management was satisfied that there was compliance with the means test."

The university said that it was then decided to join all the applicants, including Graça Machel and Makaziwe Mandela.

The clinic said it was not uncommon for organisations such as it to represent groups of clients, including clients who are not indigent, "in litigation involving matters that impact on human rights and the socio-economic conditions of disadvantaged communities".

Strategic objective
"One of the objectives of the Rhodes Law Clinic is to litigate on matters that impact on human rights and socio-economic conditions of disadvantaged communities. In taking on the 'Mandela exhumation matter', Hayes was acting in accordance with this strategic objective."

"An issue involved in this matter included the tension between the role of women in traditional matters vis a vis women's rights in terms of the Constitution. The view was that Mandla Mandela's approach to deciding this family matter was at the expense of women's voices in the family," the clinic said.

On Tuesday, Mandla Mandela's spokesperson Freddy Pilusa said the chief wanted to talk to Badat to establish why the university had an interest in the case.

He said there was no logic in the university's version of events – that "a number" of the Mandela applicants were indigent.

"This is the Mandela family we are talking about. How does a Mandela family member become indigent?" said Pilusa.

He said Mandla Mandela suspected the university had an alternative agenda in funding his aunt and others' court application "that would force them [the clinic] to depart from the normal procedure, which looks at real indigent families".

"Even the reasons given, that one or two of the Mandelas are indigent, doesn't make any sense. It's really a very odd situation," said Pilusa.

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Sarah Evans
Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics. 

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