Nelson Mandela: Doctors say South Africa's hero faces 'impending death' but deny he is in 'vegetative state'

Meanwhile, his family argues over Mandela's final resting place
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Nelson Mandela faces "impending death" and is only being kept alive by a breathing machine, a court case aimed at putting his family's affairs in order has revealed.

As official court documents described the former South African president's situation as "perilous", his squabbling grandchildren were warned not to "besmirch his name" by the retired archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Reports that Mr Mandela, 94, is in a "vegetative state" were refuted by his doctors, according to the office of President Jacob Zuma. They described the anti-apartheid leader as being in a "critical but stable" condition during a visit by Zuma yesterday.

In an attempt to unpick the specifics of Mr Mandela's condition, Dr Adri Kok from the Faculty of Consulting Physicians of South Africa said: "When they say 'perilous' I think that would be a fair description."

Though not involved directly in Mr Mandela's care, Dr Kok said that the use of life support for an extended period of time, especially for an older person, made the chances of a return to health unlikely.

"It indicates a very poor prognosis for recovery because it means that he's either too weak or too sick to breathe on his own," he said.

"Usually if a person does need that, any person, not keeping in mind his age at all, for any person it would be indicative of a grave illness."

With the world watching, a South African court expedited a case to settle what an expert in the Xhosa culture called Mr Mandela's "dying wish". In Qunu, the town where the former president grew up and his own preferred burial-place, three of Mr Mandela's children were reburied in a ceremony marked by family members and community elders.

The bodies were originally moved from Qunu by Mr Mandela's grandson and eldest heir Mandla Mandela, who was accused of trying to create an attraction for paying tourists in the village of Mvezo - Nelson Mandela's birthplace.

Fifteen family members brought a court action against Mandla Mandela, who told a news conference yesterday that his grandfather "would be highly disappointed in what is unravelling".

And in a statement released through his foundation, Desmond Tutu said: "Please, please, please may we think not only of ourselves. It's almost like spitting in Madiba's [Mr Mandela's clan name] face."

"Your anguish, now, is the nation's anguish - and the world's. We want to embrace you, to support you, to shine our love for Madiba through you. Please may we not besmirch his name."

Meanwhile, at an event raising funds for a children's hospital that will be named after Mr Mandela, his wife Graca Machel said that though he was sometimes uncomfortable he had seldom been in pain since arriving at hospital on 8 June.

She said: "Whatever is the outcome of his stay in hospital, that will remain the second time where he offered his nation an opportunity to be united under the banner of our flag, under the banner of our constitution."

Mr Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years during the apartheid era in South Africa. He was freed in 1990 and elected president in country's first all-race elections. He won the Nobel Peace Prize along with former President FW de Klerk in 1993.