Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Mandla Mandela, moved three sons’ graves to his own village. Now the family is moving them back.

Family anguish over the health of Nelson Mandela has been deepened by arguments over his final resting place, prompting a power shift that could see his eldest daughter emerge as the head of South Africa’s most revered clan.

Makaziwe Mandela, 60, is now believed to be in line to assume the title after Mandla, the anti-apartheid hero’s favored grandson and traditional heir, conceded that he had “overplayed” his hand in a macabre dispute involving the exhumation of Mandela’s three dead children.

The development came following a family summit called by Makaziwe last week in Qunu, the village where Mandela grew up and to which he returned in retirement, as her father remained hospitalized in critical condition.

Mandela’s eldest granddaughter, Ndileka, last week confirmed the move. “My Aunt Maki is the senior member,” she said. “She is the elder in the family. It’s our family and it’s always been based on collective decisions.”

Questions over the succession emerged as relatives discussed a painful question about whether to lay Mandela to rest close to his deceased children, a debate that raised the issue of Mandla’s decision two years ago to exhume their bodies.

Mandela has three deceased children: Thembekile, killed in a car accident in 1969; Makgatho, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 2005; and a girl also called Makaziwe who died as an infant in 1948. Mandla moved their remains from Qunu to the hamlet of Mvezo, 24 km away, apparently without consulting the family. Mvezo is where Mandela was born and where Mandla is chief.

At the time it was suspected that Mandla, also an African National Congress member of parliament, was paving the way for Mandela himself to be buried in Mvezo, where he has begun constructing a museum and other facilities. But last week this appeared to be a battle he had comprehensively lost.

The gathering of about a dozen Mandela elders and relatives ruled that all three children should be re-exhumed and returned to Qunu so that they will lie close to their father when he, too, is eventually buried there.

Bantu Holomisa, a close friend of Mandela who was present at the meeting, said: “This was discussed and the decision was taken to return them to Qunu. When the elders have taken a decision, that’s usually it. I have not heard any dissenting voices.”

Mandla was contrite, according to Holomisa. “There was no argument because Mandla said, ‘I made a mistake.’ He apologized and said he had overplayed it. The elders said, ‘Son, you should consult us,’ but they didn’t want a lot of argument. We didn’t want him to feel he was facing a tribunal.”

Mandela has three living children, all daughters, as well as 17 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. There have long been whispers of a split pitting the descendants of his first wife, Evelyn, against those of his second, Winnie. The potential conflicts have an added dimension in the shape of his third wife, Graca Machel. Then there are widespread cultural assumptions around the supremacy of the male line.

But Holomisa suggested that age trumps all. “Makaziwe is the eldest daughter of Madiba,” he said, referring to Mandela by his clan name. “Then you have his other daughters Zenani and Zindzi. I think they are more senior than Mandla. He is a chief in a certain area, but the daughters are calling the shots. Madiba has taught them to have a meeting and decide things collectively.”

Further evidence that Makaziwe is asserting her authority came in a recent legal action that she and Zenani took to remove Mandela’s longtime friend and lawyer, George Bizos, from the boards of two investment funds. Mandla opposed the suit, while Bizos and his allies claim it is part of a plan to assert control of Mandela’s assets.

Holomisa has played down suggestions that the house of Mandela is at war with itself. Mandla has also denied reports of a rift. His spokesman, Freddy Pilusa, said: “According to Mandla, there’s no issue. If anyone with authority wants to repatriate (the bodies) they can do so.”