WHILE the sordid drama of the Mandelas grips the world, a second local clan has emerged to challenge them, nouveau pretenders to the title of the ultimate South African dysfunctional family, torn apart by money and power.

Let me introduce the Knipes of the Northern Cape. True, they don’t have the Mandelas’ political clout and so far there hasn’t been any actual exhuming of graves. But they have any number of judges in two provinces tied up with their ongoing litigation: ever since wealthy farmer Henry Knipe, died in 2007, his widow, Moira, 81, and their five children – Carol, Jackie, Andre, Johnny and Peter – have been fighting over the spoils.

Among his properties the currently most contentious are two adjoining Northern Cape game farms, Kameelhoek and Langeberg.

In the dispute over what is to happen to these properties, jointly worth about R60-million, I have so far counted 15 legal matters, though each time you read the several judgments you find reference to more. They range from six cases in the Northern Cape high court to a Full Bench appeal in the Free State high court where a number of other related civil matters have been heard.

There also appears to be at least one family violence interdict as well as a criminal case of fraud pending against two of the family, allegedly concerning the validity of key documents presented to the court in some of the civil matters.

And in addition to the problems within the family itself it seems that certain of the lawyers involved are caught up beyond what would be professionally advisable. For example, one attorney who initially acted for Knipe’s widow after the death of her husband, has since ‘seen fit to side against her in the same dispute’, as the court put it.

The judge added that the attorney’s allegations of fraud and impropriety in relation to hunting rights granted to one of the family were ‘not only legally unfounded, but factually directly contrary to undisputed and unexplained letters previously written by him.’

The Knipe’s most recently obtained legal decision comes from the high court in Bloemfontein. This judgment echoes comments made by other courts to the effect that the family is ‘extremely dysfunctional’, with ‘family feuds, disagreements, fights, disputes and litigation’.

Thousands of pages were filed in relation to this particular aspect of the dispute. In his decision, delivered at the end of June, Judge Johannes Daffue said all these pages, formidable though their number might be, were ‘but a skirmish in a full-blown campaign – a family war – being fought on several fronts.’

Widow Knipe and Carol are apparently in the ‘same camp’, noted the judge, while Jackie, Andre and Johnny were on the other side, with Peter ‘apparently fighting his own battle’.

It was apparent that members of the family were at loggerheads, he said, and that ‘a family feud of tremendous proportions exists’. Counsel in the case had argued that there were wide ranging and bitter disputes between family members ‘of a magnitude seldom seen.’

No meaningful dialogue between them was possible and they could not approach ‘any issue’ with ‘open minds and in good faith’.

‘The children want to harvest the wealth which has been created by their late father with the financial and other support of Mrs Knipe. Accusations of greed are rife.’

When one of the lawyers involved said the matter should be referred to oral evidence so that the court could better adjudicate the disputes, Judge Daffue described the submission as ‘cynical and sarcastic,’ since oral evidence could not heal the divisions.

Eventually, tucked away in a paragraph of the decision there’s a clue as to what might actually be behind the feud. A considerable part of the Knipe estate appears to have been left to the old man’s widow who is, if you remember, ‘in the same camp’ as their daughter Carol.

It seems that the other children fear that most of this wealth will in turn be left to Carol by her mother, and so the other siblings want to strip Carol of her interests in the two companies that own the game farms. Carol’s siblings claim ‘her greed does not have any bounds,’ noted the judge. But he added, ‘The record shows that this is probably a general family attribute.’

If there were a competition for the worst behaved South African family however, the Knipes must finally fail. For there is after all something to be said in their favour: at least they waited for the pater familias to die before thrusting swords into each other.

Knipe v Kameelhoek