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Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, second left, Nelson Mandela's former wife, and Mandela's window Graca Machel, right, listen to speeches during the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto near Johannesburg, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013.

Matt Dunham/AP

Less than a month after Nelson Mandela's death, his children and grandchildren are entangled in an escalating power struggle over the family's leadership – a dispute that could determine who controls the Mandela legacy and estate.

The bitter feud has expanded to include Mr. Mandela's ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who is trying to anoint his eldest daughter as head of the family, despite strong resistance from tribal elders and the royal clan to which Mr. Mandela belonged.

"The situation in the Mandela house is critical and unstable and needs an intervention to fix it," a spokesman for Mr. Mandela's traditional clan told a South African newspaper this week.

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The tensions have already triggered battles for control of Mr. Mandela's rural villa in the Eastern Cape and the suburban house in Johannesburg where he died, according to local media.

Mr. Mandela, the revered liberation hero who fought apartheid and became South Africa's first democratic president, died on Dec. 5 at age 95. There was a brief truce in the family feud during the 10 days of national mourning and a state funeral, but now the conflict has erupted again.

Mr. Mandela's will is expected to be disclosed in the coming weeks, putting further strains on family unity.

In an extraordinary public statement, Ms. Madikizela-Mandela announced on Dec. 18 that Makaziwe Mandela, the daughter of Mr. Mandela and his first wife, Evelyn, "will head the family and will make decisions with the support of her two sisters." Her statement said this was "in accordance with customary law and tradition" – an interpretation rejected by many experts, who say that the family heir has to be the eldest male descendant, grandson Mandla Mandela.

Her statement has infuriated the abaThembu royal family, the traditional kingdom in which Mr. Mandela was born and raised.

The royal family is insisting that Mandla Mandela must be accepted as the head of the family. It says a traditional spear was given to the grandson years ago, signalling his leadership of the family.

Royal family spokesman Daludumo Mtirara said the former wife of Mr. Mandela did not have any mandate from the traditional elders to discuss "our culture, custom and tradition." Speaking to local media, he added: "Mandla is still the head [of the family], and presides over all cultural and family matters."

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Mandla Mandela has been embroiled in clashes with Makaziwe and other family members in recent years, most notoriously over the burial site of three Mandela children.

He exhumed the three bodies and moved them to Mvezo, the village where he is chief and where Mr. Mandela was born. Makaziwe and other family members took him to court and won a legal ruling, allowing them to transfer the bodies back to Qunu, the village where Mr. Mandela was buried.

After the legal battle, Mandla Mandela called a press conference to denounce the other family members in bitter terms.

He has remained silent on the family feud since Mr. Mandela's death, but a South African newspaper has reported that Makaziwe has gained control of Mr. Mandela's rural home in Qunu and changed the locks on the home after his death to prevent the grandson from entering. His farm animals were evicted from the homestead, and his local allies were barred from the funeral, the report said.

Another report said the feuding is now turning against Mr. Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, with family members trying to evict her from the house in the affluent Johannesburg suburb of Houghton where he died.

"The feuding and tension is over two issues – control over the Mandela legacy and control over his money," said the report in the respected City Press weekly newspaper.

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Quoting family friends and household sources, the report said the family members suspect his widow of hiding Mr. Mandela's money and keeping it from them.

Earlier this year, Makaziwe and her sister Zenani went to court to seek control of a trust fund with $2.8-million (U.S.) in royalties from Mandela-branded artworks. After widespread public criticism, they eventually dropped the court action.

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