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Nelson Mandela's attempts at negotiating a peaceful settlement of the worlds longest civil war are fraught with difficulties, writes Richard Cornwell
Sudan is the largest country in Africa. Not surprisingly, it is also one of the most diverse, in terms of its natural and human geography.
In the Nile Valley the Arab peoples of the north have come to dominate the political and economic life of the country. To the west live the nomads of the Darfur, waging their constant and elemental battle for survival in a dying desert. To the south, separated from northern Sudan by an enormous swamp called the Sudd are the African, animist and Christian peoples.
Before the colonial conquest, the interaction between these regions was a troubled one, characterised most starkly by generations of raids launched from the north into the south in search of slaves and ivory. This has left an indelible historical memory, scarring northern and southern perceptions each of the other, and revived by the atrocities committed during the protracted civil war of recent years.
When Sudan became independent in 1956, the northern-dominated Parliament undertook to accommodate the concerns of the relatively underdeveloped south by considering a federal constitution.
Once sovereignty had been transferred, however, this understanding was quickly ignored; and once the military had seized power in 1958, a policy of outright suppression of southern aspirations followed.
As a consequence, for all but 11 of Sudan's 41 years of independent statehood, the country has been racked by devastating civil wars. This is principally because the south has resisted attempts by the authorities in Khartoum to enforce a policy of Arabisation and Islamisation, but latterly also because it has come out in opposition to the exploitation of southern natural resources by northern entrepreneurs.
An initial civil war ended in 1972 with a peace agreement giving limited autonomy to the south. Between 1980 and 1983, however, Colonel Gaafar al Nimieris military regime reneged on certain key clauses of the accord and the insurgency restarted under the direction of Dr John Garang's Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), which soon gained control over a large part of the south.
Nimieris regime fell in 1985, to be replaced by a fractious civil administration under the leadership of Sadiq al Mahdi, the leader of the Ansar sect and the Umma party, and the Oxford- educated great-grandson of General Gordon's nemesis.
Garang's military success forced Sadiq to begin negotiations, but before agreement could be reached, the government was overthrown in 1989 in a military coup led by General Mohammed al Bashir.
Although military in aspect, the new regime was underpinned by the National Islamic Front (NIF) of Hassan al Turabi, an ideologue with strict Islamic credentials. Political parties were now banned, the organised opposition proscribed and severe Islamic legal codes enforced.
These developments merely strengthened the resolve of many southerners to reject Khartoum's domination, though by 1991 severe divisions had emerged in rebel ranks, leading to the formation of splinter groups resentful of Garang's authoritarian leadership style and what was perceived as the domination of the SPLA by his Dinka ethnic group.
Inter-rebel rivalries allowed Khartoum to regain the military initiative but added considerably to the sufferings of the civilian population, whose fragile economies had been shattered by conflict forcing many communities to disintegrate. None of the participants in the war has shown much concern for the rights of non- combatants, and many children have been conscripted into the rival armies.
Yet, even as the civil war seemed to be turning in Khartoum's favour, Sudan's relations with most of its neighbours deteriorated steadily.
Egypt had long been convinced that the new Sudanese regime was providing assistance to the fundamentalist militants of Egypt's upper Nile and the Cairo slums. This conviction was strengthened by the assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak prior to the Organisation of Africa Unity summit of 1995, which appeared to have been carried out with Khartoum's knowledge, if not connivance.
The new regimes in Ethiopia and Eritrea, too, were convinced that Sudan was training and supporting militant Islamic exiles to promote insurgence in their territories.
Even more fraught were relations with President Yoweri Museveni's government in Uganda, which was convinced that Bashir's hand lay behind the resurgence of serious rebellion in the north of that country, and responded by providing increased assistance to Garang's forces.
Regionally isolated, Khartoum turned for material assistance to Iran, its putative ideological model. The advantages of such an alliance may have been essential in the short term, but also served to confirm the United States's fear of Islamist resurgence as a global threat in the post-Cold War era.
Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda were quick to exploit Washington's hypersensitivity on this score, and secured American support despite the doubts about their own democratic credentials.
In June 1995 Eritrea sponsored a conference of the outlawed Sudanese opposition. This led to the formation of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), for the first time uniting under one banner the SPLA and the old Islamic sectarian parties of the north, the Umma and the Democratic Unionist Party. Earlier differences about the future of the south were circumvented by agreeing to the holding of a referendum following their presumed victory.
At the time many observers believed the NDA's potential to be slight. Events in the field soon proved otherwise, and by October 1996 a joint command had been established under Garang's direction. Significant rebel offensives were launched from Ethiopia and Eritrea to divert government forces from their concentration against the SPLA in the south.
Khartoum's discomfort was aggravated in December by the flight, following his escape from house arrest, of Sadiq al Mahdi, the only major opposition figure who had remained in the country. He now threw his weight behind the military campaign of the NDA, convinced that Khartoum stood on the brink of revolution and collapse.
Later in December the rebel onslaught resumed in earnest, assisted by developments in Zaire, which disrupted the supply lines of Sudan-backed Ugandan rebels, and allowed Garang to assume a more aggressive posture in the south.
Thrusts from Ethiopia and Eritrea also threatened the Rosieres Dam, whence Khartoum draws most of its electric power, and the vital Port Sudan-Khartoum road. Other risings occurred in Kordofan and Darfur, and a fresh offensive was launched in the Nuba Mountains.
Unable to offer an effective military riposte, Sudan's government turned to its diplomatic weapons, pleading for the support of its Arab brothers against an American-Zionist plot. The response was disappointing and led to a humiliating attempt to secure Egypt's favour.
At about the same time, Bashir also began to explore the idea of involving South Africa's President Nelson Mandela in the peace process.
Bashir's government had already signed a peace charter with two of the breakaway rebel movements in the south, and now sought to extend this to embrace other southern factions including, presumably, the SPLA.
Garang was not convinced, however, seeing this initiative as an attempt to sow division and mistrust among the opposition. He continued to insist that any peace negotiations take place within the framework laid down in 1994 by the Inter- Governmental Authority on Development, a body which included Sudan, Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Uganda and Eritrea.
Yet the probability of moving these stalled negotiations seemed slight, given the presence in the inter-governmental authority of so many states at odds with Khartoum, and the Bashir regimes equivocation about peace principles which called for the establishment of a secular state and the abolition of Islamic sharia law. Bashir has recently tried to fudge the issue by accepting these principles but on a non-binding basis.
On this view it is difficult to see why Mandela should have been optimistic about achieving anything of a breakthrough in the talks held in South Africa at the end of August. Certainly he brought Museveni and Bashir together, in the presence of Organisation of African Unity chair Robert Mugabe.
He also met Garang, though the latter insisted there had never been any chance he would be drawn into direct negotiations outside the framework of the Inter- Governmental Authority on Development.
Even as Museveni and Bashir were meeting, fresh reports came of renewed rebel activity into the north of Uganda from Sudan, suggesting that this attempt at reconciliation would prove no more fruitful than earlier efforts under Malawian and Iranian auspices.
No early solution to the crisis suggests itself. An outright military victory seems beyond the rebels grasp, and would involve the difficult transition from irregular to regular operations. Even were the Khartoum regime to capitulate, there also remains the question of the inherent tensions and contradictions within the NDA.
There are deeply entrenched historic differences between many of the partners in the alliance, and success would bring new risks and attendant dangers.
There have been rumours for some time now that Sadiq and other members of the old political order in the NDA have been alarmed at Garangs military successes and are considering a separate negotiating stance, whereby Bashir would abandon Turabi and his overt Islamism to form a transitional government recognising, too, the south's right to self-determination.
Such a scenario would probably prove unacceptable to the rebel military command, however, and would be unlikely to bring hostilities to an end.
Richard Cornwell is the co-ordinator of the African security analysis programme at the Institute for Security Studies.