Mandela tipped for royal award

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Speculation is rife in South Africa about what honour the Queen plans to bestow on President Nelson Mandela next week, with most media predicting he will get the Order of Merit.

The South African press has predicted that during her state visit, which starts on Sunday, the Queen will be awarded South Africa's highest honour for visiting heads of state, the Order of Good Hope.

A spokesperson for Buckingham Palace would only say it was normal for honours to be exchanged on state visits and that the Queen would reciprocate with an "appropriate honour" for Mr Mandela.

The Order of Merit would avoid potential embarrassment that Winnie Mandela, her reputation scarred by a kidnapping conviction and allegations of sleaze, would claim the title of Lady if her estranged husband were given an honorary knighthood.

The only non-Briton who bears the Order of Merit is Mother Teresa. King George VI also bestowed the rare honour on General Jan Smuts, the pro-British leader who hosted the King during the last visit to South Africa by a British monarch, in 1947. South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth last year.

Another potential political embarrassment during the Queen's six-day trip loomed yesterday as responsibility for a number of killings in KwaZulu- Natal province led to the inner circle of Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the mainly Zulu Inkatha reedom Party.

The Queen is scheduled to meet Mr Buthelezi on Monday as the Minister of Home Affairs in South Africa's unity government. Mr Buthelezi is also to be one of the guests of honour at a banquet on the Royal Yacht Britannia on 24 March, as is his now bitter enemy, the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelethini.

An Inkatha hitman convicted of six murders gave evidence in a Durban court this week that named several members of Mr Buthelezi's inner circle as being responsible for ordering murders of members of Mr Mandela's African National Congress.