Mandela, 42, holds the position of Chief of Mvezo in the AbaThembu clan, a position inherited from his late grandfather.
It is believed he converted in order to marry Rabia Clarke, a Muslim woman, in what was his fourth marriage to date.
The specific reasoning behind the mixed reaction is due to the fact that the responsibilities Mandela’s role historically includes are generally considered out of line with Islamic beliefs. These include leading thanksgiving rituals for ancestors, which includes having to present slaughtered animals to them in prayer.
Speaking to the BBC, Mwelo Nonkonyane, chief spokesperson for the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa), described the reasoning behind the situation:
“There is nothing wrong with a traditional leader following any faith he chooses, but we are concerned about whether he will be able to continue performing his responsibilities as a chief,” he said. He added that Mandela’s marriage to Rabia may also be out of line with customs in South Africa for other reasons.
“According to African tradition, it is the woman that must become part of the family she is marrying into,” he explained.
“When she accepted Mandla’s proposal, the expectation was for her to adopt the ways of his people,” he continued.
Other leaders in Contralesa were less diplomatic in their reaction to the situation. Xolile Ndevu says Mandela’s new religious affiliation means he should step down from his role.
“It means now he is no longer a chief of AbaThembu in Mvezo, because the Mvezo people are not Muslim,” he asserted.
At the wedding ceremony, Mandela seemed unfazed by the criticism and stood by his decision to marry Rabia Clarke, reportedly stating, “Although Rabia and I were raised in different cultural and religious traditions, our coming together reflects what we have in common: We are South Africans.”