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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Audie Cornish.

In South Africa, Nelson Mandela is spending his fourth week in the hospital, critically ill. Meanwhile, the nation has become transfixed by the latest twist in an ugly feud involving several generations of the former president's family. A court battle has erupted over where the remains of Mandela's three deceased children should be buried.

As NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports from Johannesburg, the dispute has revealed an apparent power struggle within South Africa's most illustrious family.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: A rival faction of Nelson Mandela's relatives, led by his oldest surviving daughter, Makaziwe, went to court last week to compel the remains of her late siblings to be returned to her father's ancestral home. They accuse his eldest grandson, Chief Mandla Mandela, of exhuming the bodies two years ago and removing them to his village, Mvezo, 15 miles away. That's where he's building a heritage center dedicated to Nelson Mandela. The move infuriated his relatives and, today, the high court ruled against him.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIPS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The sheriff or his deputy performs the exhumation of the remains for reburial...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A lock on this gate and there you have it. The gate is open...

QUIST-ARCTON: Television images and commentary show the court's representative using a pickaxe to force open the locks on the gates of Mandla Mandela's compound, opening the way for a convoy of police vehicles and Mandela family members. Police say the unmarked graves have been located and that exhumation of the remains has begun.

Cultural commentator Somadoda Fikeni says this unseemly family tug-of-war runs counter to custom and tradition.

SOMADODA FIKENI: It is believed that an elderly member of the family, or any member of the family, wouldn't have a smooth transition to the afterlife if there was still some dispute or discord in the family.

QUIST-ARCTON: Now, many South Africans are appalled by the very public family feuding. And the nation is now grappling with news revealed in his daughter's affidavit filed to the court. It says that just two weeks shy of his 95th birthday, the Nobel peace laureate is on life support. Secretary-general of Nelson Mandela's governing ANC Party, Gwede Mantashe, told a prayer gathering that this should be a time for unity and solidarity among his relatives.

GWEDE MANTASHE: The family must reconcile. They must talk to each other and find a common goal.

QUIST-ARCTON: But there seems to be little unity. The Daily Dispatch newspaper quoted Ndaba Mandela as describing his half-brother, Mandla, as a power hungry, self-obsessed man who's only concerned about himself. A close family friend, Bantu Holomisa, says he's discouraged for the former president, whom he refers to by his clan name, Madiba.

BANTU HOLOMISA: We must accept that it doesn't augur well for Madiba's legacy, because Madiba is known to be this person who solved problems collectively and peacefully.

QUIST-ARCTON: The Royal House of Nelson Mandela's Abathembu Tribe and clan elders have offered to step in to try to resolve the family quarrel.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Johannesburg.

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