JOHANNESBURG: Nelson Mandela remained in critical condition in hospital Thursday despite tentative signs of improvement, as US President Barack Obama led a chorus of support for the “hero for the world”.
South African President Jacob Zuma, who abruptly cancelled a trip abroad to be near the 94-year-old anti-apartheid hero, reported that he “remains critical but is now stable.”
“He is much better today,” Zuma said in a statement. “The medical team continues to do a sterling job. We must pray for Tata’s (father’s) health and wish him well.”
But with Mandela’s condition still fragile, family members gathered at his bedside nearly three weeks after he was admitted with a recurring lung infection.
“Anything is imminent, but I want to emphasise again that it is only God who knows when the time to go is,” said daughter Makaziwe Mandela.
“I won’t lie. It doesn’t look good,” she told local radio. But “if we speak to him he responds and tries to open his eyes — he’s still there.”
Clan elder Napilisi Mandela told AFP late on Wednesday that the former South African president “is using machines to breathe.”
On Thursday a large number of family members gathered at the Mediclinic Heart Hospital, along with the minister of defence, who is responsible for Mandela’s treatment.
With his life seemingly slipping away, messages of support for the former president blanket the wall, including a poster bearing one of his most memorable quotes: “It only seems impossible until it’s done”.
Supporters sang songs for the father of South African democracy and the architect of remarkable transition from almost half a century of white minority rule to landmark multiracial elections.
Cape Town Archbishop Thabo Makgoba visited the Mediclinic Heart Hospital late Tuesday to pray with wife Graca Machel “at this hard time of watching and waiting”.
“Grant Madiba eternal healing and relief from pain and suffering,” the prayer said, using Mandela’s clan name by which he is fondly known. “Grant him, we pray…a peaceful, perfect, end.”
Mandela’s lung troubles date from his 27 years locked up on the notorious Robben Island and in other apartheid prisons.
Upon his release he would become the country’s first black president.
His “Rainbow Nation” has been forced to come to terms with the increasing frailty of the man who defeated decades of racist white minority rule to become the country’s first black president.
Meanwhile messages of goodwill flooded in from overseas.
“He is a personal hero,” US President Barack Obama said in Senegal.
The US president recalled how Mandela had inspired him to take up political activity, when he campaigned for the anti-apartheid movement as a student in the late 1970s.
Mandela’s fragile state of health has sparked speculation that Obama could cancel a planned visit to South Africa from Friday as part of a tour of Africa.
UN leader Ban Ki-moon said the whole world was praying for “one of the giants of the 20th century”.
“I know our thoughts and prayers are with Nelson Mandela, his family and loved ones, all South Africans and people across the world who have been inspired by his remarkable life and example,” Ban said.
Mandela — whose 95th birthday is on July 18 — has been hospitalised four times since December, mostly for a stubborn lung infection dating back to his time in jail for sabotage against the apartheid government.
The man once branded a terrorist by the United States and Britain walked free from prison near Cape Town in 1990.
He went on to negotiate an end to white minority rule and won South Africa’s first fully democratic elections in 1994.
He forged a path of racial reconciliation during his single term as president, before taking up a new role as a roving elder statesman and leading AIDS campaigner.
He stepped back from public life in 2004 and has not been seen in public since the football World Cup finals in South Africa in 2010.
With his health now fading, Mandela’s supporters are starting to show signs of resignation — while preparing to celebrate his legacy.
In the rural village of Qunu where he grew up amid cattle and mud-walled huts, 93-year-old Keqane Keledwane said she was not ready to say goodbye to her neighbour.
“I want him to get well. I don’t want to be the only left behind,” said Keledwane, who lives across the road from Mandela’s house. “I wish him a long life, my old friend.”