Nelson Mandela's oldest grandson Mandla became the first family member in decades to be appointed chief of the revered leader's rural birthplace, but today he stands accused of trying to cash in on that legacy.

The 39-year-old is at the centre of an ugly family spat that saw him forced by a court to return the exhumed remains of three of the anti-apartheid hero's children to his childhood village of Qunu.

Mandla had reburied the remains in 2011 in Mandela's nearby birth village of Mvezo, where he is now chief and overseeing large-scale development.

Born in 1974 to Mandela's late son Makgatho, he is the first Mandela to have followed his famous grandfather into politics.

"My grandfather has always been my role model. He's an inspiration to the work I do today," Mandla told AFP in an interview last month.

Having inherited his grandfather's imposing height and world-famous surname, he was Mandela's choice to become chief of rural Mvezo in 2007.

Two years later, he joined mainstream politics as a member of parliament for the ruling African National Congress, which Mandela led to power in 1994 in landmark multiracial elections.

Equally at home in a well-cut suit or traditional Xhosa wear of animal skins and beadwork, he states that his grandfather shaped the major milestones of his life.

Mandla readily admits that South Africa and his family will never produce another Nelson Mandela.

But the macabre grave scandal is seen as tarnishing the Mandela name while South Africa's first black president lies critically ill in hospital, with his grandson accused of trying to control his legacy.

Given his huge popularity, a "deluge of tourists will go to any place which will be a shrine of Madiba", South African Heritage Foundation's Somadoda Fikeni told local radio, using Mandela's clan name.

In their application to the court against the grandson, Mandela's family accused Mandla of trying to ensure the former leader is buried in Mvezo by moving the children's remains, according to a leaked court document published by the local media.

"It is conceivable that such a heritage site has the potential to generate monetary gain. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that the first respondent (Mandla) has already begun preparations at the Great Place in Mvezo, inclusive of construction buildings," the document said.

Mandla on Thursday angrily rejected the claim, saying people were trying to "jump on the Mandela wagon".

He is no stranger to controversy and the grave tampering accusations are just the latest embarrassment to dog the grandson.

His private and love life have known their share of drama. He has had three marriages in seven years that led to lurid headlines over claims of bigamy, outstanding child support payments and child paternity questions.

Even his chieftaincy has come under scrutiny and he has fiercely rejected suggestions that he is not entitled to the title because he was born out of wedlock.

In Mvezo, however, he is credited for visible change.

A new block-paved road has transformed access to the deeply poor village, which does not even have a health clinic, from a bumpy dirt road to a smooth ride.

Mandla is also overseeing the development of a new impressive complex of thatched buildings. A private sector-funded science and technology school is also under construction and tourist accommodation is on the cards.

One of the former president's 17 grandchildren, Mandla came into the world while Mandela was serving a 27-year jail term.

Born in Soweto, the sprawling urban township outside Johannesburg that was the seat of the anti-apartheid movement, he went to school in Swaziland for seven years.

At the time, he stayed with the kingdom's royal family, which he credits for instilling in him a rich history and the importance of culture and tradition.

He also spent time as a youngster with his mother's family in the rural Eastern Cape. His mother and grandmother ran a "shebeen" tavern and he grew up as a music-loving high-school pupil, who dreamed of becoming a DJ.

But his grandfather vehemently disapproved, telling him "'Nonsense, no Mandela will ever become such. You need to go out and find a career,'" he told AFP.

"My grandfather has really been the driver behind the person that I needed to be and the anchor around that was education," added Mandla, who holds a degree in politics from Rhodes University and diplomas in business management and marketing.