South Africa President Jacob Zuma has denied reports that Nelson Mandela was in a "vegetative state" but has confirmed that the anti-apartheid icon was in "a critical but stable condition."
The term "vegetative state" was used in court papers filed by members of the Mandela family, according to lawyers acting on behalf of 15 family members including his wife and three daughters.
"The anticipation of his impending death is based on real and substantial grounds," the court papers said.
But South African President Jacob Zuma's office played down court papers and gave its own account of Mandela's state of health. It said "doctors deny that the former president was in a vegetative state."
Mandela's health appeared to come in for even closer scrutiny after a court ruled that the remains of three of his children should be reburied in his home town of Qunu. The remains had transferred to Mvezo, 25 kilometers (15 miles) away, where Mandela's eldest grandson is chief, two years ago.
Remains of Mandela's children reburied
Family members and community elders attended the reburial ceremony in Qunu, where Mandela grew up and where he has said he wants to be buried. Forensic tests earlier confirmed that the remains were indeed those of Mandela's children.
Grandson Mandla Mandela told a news conference on Thursday that his grandfather "would be highly disappointed in what is unravelling."
The mud-slinging between family members - including public allegations of infidelity and children born out of wedlock has sparked concern in South Africa, as the anti-apartheid icon fights for his life in a hospital,
DW correspondent in Johannesburg, Thuso Khumalo, says, South Africans are angered by the ongoing rifts in the Mandela family, and the majority think they should sit down and iron out their differences amicably.
The squabble is playing out in newspapers, on the Internet and on TV, angering a nation gripped by grief and praying for its beloved 94-year-old former president.
Call for calm
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who like Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the struggle against apartheid, appealed to the family to overcome their differences.
"Please, please, please may we think not only of ourselves. It's almost like spitting in Madiba's face," Tutu said in a statement .
Desmond Tutu has called for reconciliation in Mandela's family
Mlawu Tyatyeka, an expert on the Xhosa culture of Mandela's family, said the court case over the graves was decided quickly because the family knows that Mandela will soon die.
"It's not a case of wishing him to die. It's a case of making sure that by the time he dies, his dying wish has been fulfilled," he said. "We have a belief that should you ignore a dying wish, all bad will befall you."
Meanwhile, Mandela's wife said the former president is sometimes uncomfortable but seldom in pain while being treated in hospital. Graca Machel spoke about her husband's condition at a fundraising drive for a children's hospital that will be named after Mandela.
"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," she said.