Apartheid's most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela, is lonely and despondent now that he has been transferred from a medical clinic to the splendid isolation of a house in a prison compound near Cape Town.

"The family felt saddened and hurt when they saw what had happened to him, and felt particularly keenly about his loneliness," said Mandela's lawyer, Ismail Ayob, after Winnie Mandela, her daughter and three grandchildren visited him in his new quarters in the Victor Verster compound. "The family has the impression that he is worse off than before."Mandela was moved from a luxury clinic, where he was recovering from tuberculosis, to a house built for a prison official. It has several bedrooms and a swimming pool. He has been allowed unlimited family visits, but his wife says she will take only the 40 minutes she used to be allowed, until other prisoners are granted the same extra privileges.

Mandela was moved to the house under pressure, particularly from Western governments, to release him in order to facilitate negotiations with black leaders.

The government's response to the pressures has been to gradually upgrade his treatment, culminating in the move to a house of his own. Although guards were not present during his family's visit, he remains a prisoner, and the house is surrounded by prison wardens.

His exact legal status was challenged by the Weekly Mail newspaper which has just re-emerged after a month-long banning. It published a set of early pictures of Mandela despite a law that says pictures of prisoners may not be published. In publishing these pictures, the Mail was relying on a statement by President P.W. Botha that, after his stay in the clinic, Mandela would "not be sent back to prison."

After publication of the pictures, Justice Minister Kobie Coetzoe announced that Mandela "is still a prisoner." So far no decision has been taken about whether the newspaper will be prosecuted.

A prosecution would be diplomatically embarrassing. It would force the government to repeat publicly that Mandela remains a prisoner at a time when it is telling the outside world that his present location is a step towards release. It would also imply that the government is so afraid of Mandela that it cannot even afford the political cost of his picture being made public inside South Africa.

Mandela has been alone in his cell since 1985, but in the Pollsmoor prison he had some contact with his colleagues and friends. Now, living in a house in a prison compound, he is surrounded by prison officials and has no access to friends.