South Africa President Jacob Zuma late Thursday denied reports that Nelson Mandela was in a “vegetative state” while confirming that the anti-apartheid icon was in “a critical but stable condition.” The phrase describing the grim condition was used in court papers filed by members of the Mandela family — according to lawyers cited in media reports — who are feuding with the former president’s grandson, Mandla Mandela.

“The doctors deny that the former president is in a vegetative state,” Zuma’s office said.

Mr Zuma, using Mr Mandela’s clan name, had said after visiting the hospital Thursday afternoon: “Madiba is receiving the best medical care from a multi-disciplinary team of health professionals who are at his bedside around the clock.” Mr Mandela’s family, in court documents submitted last week, indicated that the first black South African president was on life-support machines to aid his breathing.

His wife, Graca Machel, in her first public comments on Mr Mandela’s condition, seemed more upbeat Thursday.

“Although Madiba may sometimes be uncomfortable, very few times he is in pain, but he is fine,” said Ms Machel, while issuing a call for “unity.”

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