JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Former South African president and anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela was in a “serious but stable” condition yesterday after being taken to hospital with a recurrence of a lung infection, the government said.
The 94-year-old, who became the first black leader of Africa’s biggest economy in 1994 after historic all-race elections, has been in hospital three times since December. He has been battling the infection for a few days, the government said in a statement.
“This morning at about 1:30 a.m. (2330 GMT) his condition deteriorated and he was transferred to a Pretoria hospital. He remains in a serious but stable condition,” it said.
The government’s choice of words, in particular the use of “serious”, was clear cause for concern to South Africa’s 53 million people, for whom Mandela remains a potent symbol of the struggle against decades of white-minority rule.
“It’s such painful news but I pray for him that he can get better and better and better as he is the best man in this country,” said Pretoria resident Khodani Mulwena.
Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said he was optimistic about the health of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
“What I am told by doctors is that he is breathing on his own and I think that is a positive sign,” he said. “Madiba is a fighter and at his age, as long as he is fighting he will be fine,” Maharaj said, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, accompanied him to the hospital, the South African Press Association reported. Machel had been scheduled to speak yesterday at a conference on hunger in London but cancelled the engagement, SAPA reported.
Mandela stepped down as president in 1999 after one term in office and has been removed from politics for a decade. His last appearance in public was at the final of the soccer World Cup in Johannesburg in 2010.
He appeared in a brief television clip aired by state television in April during a visit to his home by President Jacob Zuma.
At the time, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) assured the public Mandela was “in good shape”, although the footage showed a thin and frail old man sitting expressionless in an armchair with his head propped against a pillow.
Since his withdrawal from public life, he has divided his time between his plush Johannesburg home and Qunu, the village in the impoverished Eastern Cape province where he was born and spent his early years.
Mandela spent nearly three weeks in hospital in December with a lung infection and after surgery to remove gallstones.
That was his longest stay in hospital since his release from prison in 1990 after serving almost three decades behind bars or on the Robben Island prison camp near Cape Town for conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government.