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Frail Mandela calls off his march to celebrate 20 years of freedom

Nelson Mandela has abruptly called off a historic return to the prison from which he walked to freedom 20 years ago today.

The decision to abandon his role in events celebrating the anniversary of his release from Victor Verster prison follows a dispute within his extended and fractious family on managing the movements of the increasingly frail former president, now aged 91.

Instead, his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela will lead a "symbolic" 500-yard march from the gates of the prison to the spot where a beaming Mr Mandela, his clenched fist raised in triumph, ended his 27-year incarceration.

Ms Madikizela-Mandela will be joined by other stalwarts of the African National Congress (ANC), including the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma.

Last week, Fikile Mbalula, the Deputy Police Minister, said that Mr Mandela would attend the commemoration outside the prison, now called the Drakenstein Correctional Centre, in an attempt to put an end to speculation that he was in such poor health that he would be unable to travel.

"Madiba" -- the clan name by which he is affectionately known -- has not been seen in public for months.

On Tuesday, however, the ANC issued a terse statement saying that Mr Mandela would attend only the state opening of Parliament, held to coincide with the 20th anniversary of his release, this evening.

The statement, signed by Jackson Mthembu, the ANC's national spokesman, gave no reason for the apparent turnaround.


Other ANC officials said that the event outside the prison was a party function centred on the theme of the Mandela legacy and had nothing to do with the Government, which had organised the opening of Parliament.

A source close to the family said that tensions over Mr Mandela's appearance had arisen between Ms Madikizela-Mandela and her daughter Zindzi, other members of the family, including his current wife, Graca Machel, and officials of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, who play the role of minders.

"Something very strange has been going on. Wild horses would not keep Winnie away from an event like that.

"Everyone knows that if Mandela himself went, front-page news was guaranteed," said one source.

"Others would be jealous, but he is very frail and it is difficult to stage-manage an event like that -- whereas to manoeuvre him into the National Assembly is relatively easy in comparison."

Mr Mandela's absence at the prison gates is certain to reignite speculation about his health and disappoint thousands of supporters and ANC faithful who are planning to attend.

His demeanour during the opening of Parliament will now be scrutinised in minute detail. Last December it was reported that he was declining food and fading fast.

He then made a sudden recovery, but has not been seen in public since.

A crowd of 20,000 is expected to attend the commemoration ceremony anyway, in the small wine-growing town of Paarl in the rolling countryside outside Cape Town, where Mr Mandela, then 71, addressed an ecstatic crowd waving banners and posters that had been banned for decades.

The row echoes a dispute last year when Mr Mandela's grandson, Mandla, infuriated the former president's official minders by whisking his grandfather off in a small aircraft to attend a rainswept election rally near his birthplace in the Eastern Cape.

Later, Mandla, who was subsequently elected as an ANC MP, was forced to deny reports that he had sold the rights to televise the burial of his grandfather in his home village -- where he is now chief -- for about f260,000 to the state broadcaster.


Mr Mandela's family have frequently been accused of trying to profit from his name and reputation.

At a small party at his home in Johannesburg last Thursday, Nelson Mandela celebrated the anniversary of his walk to freedom with a glass of champagne.

That event was filmed and marketed by Zindzi, one of two daughters that the former president had with Ms Madikizela-Mandela.