Government officials have given no update on his health since announcing that the frail 94-year-old was taken to a Pretoria hospital early Saturday in a “serious but stable” condition suffering from a lung infection.
South Africans are beginning to come to terms with the mortality of their first black president and father of the “Rainbow Nation”, following a string of health scares in recent months.
The Sunday Times newspaper carried a front-page picture of the beloved elder statesman smiling and waving under the headline: “It’s time to let him go”.
It is the fourth hospital stay since December for the Nobel peace prize laureate, who turns 95 next month, after he was discharged in April following treatment for pneumonia.
Although the government has not identified the hospital treating Mandela, family members were seen leaving a heart clinic in Pretoria where a large media camp is gathered.
“We wish Madiba a speedy recovery, but I think what is important is that his family must release him,” Mandela’s long-time friend Andrew Mlangeni, 87, told the Sunday Times, using his clan name.
“Once the family releases him, the people of South Africa will follow. We will say thank you, God, you have given us this man, and we will release him too,” said the former apartheid era prisoner, who was jailed for life alongside Mandela in 1964.
Mandela is revered as a global symbol of forgiveness following his release from 27 years in prison during white minority rule and his latest hospitalisation has triggered outpourings of concern across the globe.
He has not been seen in public since the World Cup final in July 2010.
Song filled the morning air at the Regina Mundi church in Soweto, a key flashpoint in the anti-apartheid struggle, as worshippers prayed for their hero.
“I mean Tata is 94. At 94 what do you expect?” said churchgoer Sannie Shezi, 36, using an affectionate term meaning father.
“He lived his life, he worked for us. All we can say is God help him. If things happen they will happen, but we still love him.”
Mandela’s third wife Graca Machel has been at his hospital bedside after calling off a trip to London where she had been due to attend a global conference on hunger.
While Twitter users expressed sadness over Mandela’s latest illness and urged a quick recovery, they were also prepared for the worst.
“Madiba has served us well , a real blessing a definition of a leader but it’s time to let him Go. We can’t hold on forever,” said one tweet.
While the official description of his health as serious was unusually sombre, presidency spokesman Mac Maharaj told AFP on Saturday that Mandela was breathing on his own.
South Africa’s one-day cricket captain AB de Villiers joined world figures including Prime Minister David Cameron and the White House in sending best wishes for Mandela.
“He’s a legend in our country,” he said on a tour in England, voicing hope that Mandela would recover soon and “maybe even get that big 100 when it comes to birthdays”.
Mandela was being treated at at his Johannesburg home when his condition worsened and he was taken to hospital in Pretoria at 1:30 am Saturday (2330 GMT Friday).
He was diagnosed with early-stage tuberculosis in 1988 and also has had treatment for prostate cancer and suffered stomach ailments.
In December, Mandela spent 18 days in hospital, his longest as a free man.
In March he was admitted for an overnight scheduled check-up before returning later that month for 10 days.
In March, Zuma appeared to prepare the nation for Mandela’s passing, saying: “In Zulu, when someone passes away who is very old, people say he or she has gone home. I think those are some of the things we should be thinking about.”
Controversial television footage in April showed a frail, distant and unsmiling Mandela being visited at home by ANC leaders, sparking accusations that his party was exploiting him.
The ruling African National Congress — facing elections next year — has lost much of its Mandela shine amid widespread corruption, poverty and poor public services.
After serving just one term as president, Mandela turned his energy to AIDS and conflict resolution, before stepping out of the public eye a decade ago at the age of 85.