By Yvonne Bell
MTHATHA, South Africa (Reuters) - A feud between factions of Nelson Mandela's family descended into soap opera farce on Thursday when his grandson and heir, Mandla, accused relatives of adultery and milking the fame of the revered anti-apartheid leader.
In a news conference broadcast live on TV that stunned South Africans, Mandla Mandela confirmed rumors that his young son, Zanethemba, was in fact the child of an illicit liaison between his brother Mbuso and Mandla's now ex-wife Anais Grimaud.
With Mandela on life-support in a Pretoria hospital, the escalating feud has transfixed and appalled South Africa in equal measure as it contemplates the reality that the father of the post-apartheid "Rainbow Nation" will not be around forever.
"Mbuso impregnated my wife," Mandla said in Mvezo, the Eastern Cape village 700 km (450 miles) south of Johannesburg where Mandela - now 94 years old and critically ill - was born and where Mandla serves as the formal chief of the clan.
Mandla, 39, first raised questions about his son's paternity last year when he split from French-speaking Grimaud, who has since moved back home to the Indian Ocean island of Reunion. He also revealed then that he was unable to have children.
His attempts to get the family to address the questions of Zanethemba's paternity had been rebuffed in the interests of preserving a semblance of unity in South Africa's most famous family, Mandla said.
"This matter has never been discussed by the so-called members of the family who say that they want to ensure there is harmony in this family," he said, challenging reporters to conduct DNA tests to confirm his allegations.
"The facts are there. You may go and find out, do the necessary tests that are needed," he said. His brother Mbuso has denied being the father of the child.
Newspapers have plastered "Mandela vs. Mandela" headlines across their front pages and editorials have bemoaned the cruel irony of bitter divisions inside the family of a man lauded the world over as the epitome of reconciliation between races.
The government said that Mandela remained "critical but stable" after nearly four weeks in hospital.
"THE MANDELA WAGON"
The sleepy community of Mvezo, set amid the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape, has been at the center of a vicious dispute that may ultimately determine where South Africa's first black president will be laid to rest.
Two years ago, Mandla exhumed the bodies of three of Mandela's children from Qunu, where Mandela grew up, and moved them the 20 km to Mvezo, where Mandla has built a visitor center and a memorial center dedicated to his grandfather.
Mandla said he moved the bodies based on his right as chief to decide the final resting place of family members, especially his father Makgatho who died of an AIDS-related illness in 2005.
"I hold the right to determine where he is buried. I am the chief of Mvezo, as a traditional leader and the head of the royal house of Mandela," said Mandla, dressed in a black leather jacket and red shirt.
Despite his assertions, many of South Africa's 53 million people believe the exhumations were part of a deliberate plan to ensure Mandela was buried in Mvezo.
Last week, a rival faction of the family, led by Mandla's aunt Makaziwe and including Mbuso, won a court order for the bodies to be returned to Qunu - an edict carried out late on Wednesday after a last-minute legal bid by Mandla failed.
Speaking calmly and deliberately in front of a bank of cameras, Mandla lashed out at Makaziwe and members of the wider family, accusing them of trying to cash in on the legacy of one of the 20th century's most respected political figures.
"This is the very family that has taken their own father, their own grandfather, to court for his monies," he said, referring to a long-running legal bid by Makaziwe to remove the guardians of a Mandela charitable trust.
"It seems like anyone and everyone can come and say 'I am a Mandela' and demand to be part of the decision-making in this family," he said. "Individuals have abandoned their own families and heritage and decided to jump on the Mandela wagon."
Makaziwe has declined to comment on the graves dispute, telling reporters that it is a "private family matter".
The three Mandela children exhumed from Mvezo are an infant girl who died in 1948, a boy, Thembi, who died in a car crash in 1969, and Mandla's father, Makgatho. In all, Mandela fathered six children from his three marriages.
(Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Gareth Jones)