JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- A granddaughter of Nelson Mandela has harshly criticized a longtime associate of the former president and anti-apartheid leader, in an escalation of a dispute over funds linked to one of the world's most revered figures.
Tukwini Mandela accused lawyer George Bizos of insulting her mother, slandering the Mandela family name and spreading "blatant lies and innuendo" in a bitter rift over control of two companies linked to 94-year-old Mandela. The main purpose of the companies is to channel funds from the sale of handprint artwork by Mandela for the benefit of his family.
"Please have the decency to behave as an elder if you care for my grandfather and his name, which catapulted you into undeserved stardom," Tukwini Mandela wrote in an open letter that was emailed to The Associated Press on Tuesday. She urged Bizos, a stalwart of the struggle for equal rights in South Africa, to act in a manner "befitting of your status" in society.
In a statement sent to AP, Bizos said he had not been disrespectful to Nelson Mandela or his family.
"I have been a close friend and supporter of the family for over six decades," he said. He added that he would leave it to a court to decide on issues raised in a legal case brought against him and several associates by Makaziwe Mandela, Tukwini's mother.
The disagreement comes as Nelson Mandela, who last appeared in public in 2010, receives medical care at his Johannesburg home after several hospital visits in recent months. He is seen globally as a symbol of reconciliation and sacrifice after spending 27 years in prison during racist white rule and then leading South Africa's transition to democratic, all-race elections in 1994.
The dispute over the funds troubles many South Africans for whom corruption, high crime rates and economic inequality have tainted the new South Africa. Mandela was South Africa's first black president and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Makaziwe Mandela and her sister Zenani have launched a court case against Bizos and other associates of Nelson Mandela, alleging they should not remain directors of Harmonieux Investment Holdings and Magnifique Investment Holdings because they were not properly appointed. The case also alleges that the trio has neglected its duties at the helm of the companies.
Earlier this week, The Star newspaper quoted 84-year-old Bizos, who defended Mandela during the apartheid years, as saying Makaziwe Mandela's goal was to take some company money, estimated to be $1.3 million, without providing details of how it would be used.
"This woman wanted to take over the money, not for any specific purpose, and distribute it to members of the family," he said. "That is contrary to the provisions of the trust. Therefore we refused to give her the money."
Norton Rose, a Johannesburg law firm representing Bizos in the dispute with Mandela's daughters, said Bizos' position will be outlined in papers likely to be filed in court in mid-May.
In an interview last week with South Africa's Talk Radio 702, Norton Rose director Michael Hart said Nelson Mandela gave "explicit instructions" for Bizos and two associates, lawyer Bally Chuene and Tokyo Sexwale, a businessman and politician, to oversee the disputed companies. They have done so "without any charge or remuneration," he said.
In the letter, Tukwini Mandela said her mother is a "highly educated and accomplished businesswoman in her own right," and that Bizos' reported comments showed a lack of respect for Nelson Mandela and his advocacy on behalf of women.
"I doubt you would ever refer to the women in your life as 'this woman,'" Tukwini Mandela wrote.
"You and your peddlers of falsehood have spent the whole of last week casting aspersions on my family, spreading blatant lies and innuendo, hoping that a trial through the media will deter us from defending our name and legacy," she wrote.
Tukwini Mandela is the marketing director of House of Mandela, a winemaking company. Two other granddaughters of Mandela are starring in a U.S. television reality show titled "Being Mandela."
Bizos, who was born in Greece, defended Mandela during the Rivonia trial in 1960s that led to the African National Congress leader's conviction on sabotage charges and a sentence of life imprisonment.
Bizos works at the Legal Resources Center, a human rights group in South Africa. He has recently cross-examined the national police commissioner and other witnesses before a panel investigating the shooting deaths of 34 striking miners by police last year.