JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- President Jacob Zuma and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu voiced the dismay of many fellow South Africans on Friday when they called on the family of ailing elder statesman Nelson Mandela to stop its acrimonious public row.
Tutu, former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town who often serves as the nation's conscience, said the squabble tarnished Mandela's name. Zuma's spokesman, Mac Maharaj, called the spat regrettable.
Tutu made an impassioned call on family members to be less selfish and to consider Mandela, who lies in critical condition on life support in a Pretoria hospital.
"Please, please, please may we think not only of ourselves. It's almost like spitting in Madiba's face," he said in a statement, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
This past week has seen extraordinary public skirmishing among members of the family.
A faction led by Mandela's oldest daughter, Makaziwe Mandela-Amuah, accused one of the elder statesman's grandsons of stealing the bodies of Nelson Mandela's children and reburying them in his own village to ensure the ex-leader would be buried there as well -- a bid, they said, to make money off of tourism. With a court order, they got the remains returned to the former president's home village.
The grandson, Mandla Mandela, in turn accused the opposing faction of greed, exposed a series of grubby sexual scandals and advised his aunt to busy herself with the problems of her husband's family and keep out of Mandela affairs.
Like Nelson Mandela, Tutu represents the ideal of racial reconciliation in South Africa. He called on the family not to besmirch Mandela's name, saying that he understood their torment but that they must share him with the world.
"We cannot imagine how difficult it must be for a family to endure being physically separated from its father for the 27 years that Mr. Mandela spent in prison, only to have to share him with the world when freedom came," he said. "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."
The South African presidency issued a statement Friday saying that Mandela remains in critical condition. Maharaj, the spokesman, took the unusual step of denying media reports that circulated Thursday citing a family document in the court battle stating that the former leader had been in a "vegetative state."
"We confirm our earlier statement released this afternoon after President Jacob Zuma visited Madiba in hospital that Madiba remains in a critical, but stable condition. The doctors deny that the former president is in a vegetative state," the statement said.
A close friend of the Mandela family, Denis Goldberg, told Sky News that he had visited Mandela in the hospital Monday and that the former president had been conscious and responsive. Goldberg said Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, had told him the family considered turning off life support equipment the previous week, when Mandela's health deteriorated sharply, but decided against it. On June 27, his health improved.
The family still holds out hope that Mandela's health will improve further.
"There is no sign of a general organ collapse and therefore they do not recommend switching off the machine because there's every chance that his health will improve," he said, citing Machel. "The matter has been discussed and the decision was against."
Machel said Thursday that while Mandela was sometimes in pain or uncomfortable, he was "fine."