Nelson Mandela was in “good spirits” on Friday as he spent a second day in hospital for a lung infection, in the latest health scare for the revered peace icon, South Africa’s presidency said.
“Mandela is in good spirits and enjoyed a full breakfast this morning,” President Jacob Zuma’s office said in a statement, as messages of concern for the ailing 94-year-old poured in from across the globe.
“The doctors report that he is making steady progress. He remains under treatment and observation in hospital.”
The anti-apartheid hero, one of the towering figures of modern history, was admitted to hospital for the recurring lung infection just before midnight on Wednesday, his third hospitalisation in four months.
Zuma sought Thursday to reassure South Africans that Mandela was in good hands as his doctors reported some progress in his treatment.
“The country must not panic, Madiba is fine,” Zuma told the BBC, referring to South Africa’s first black president by his clan name.
“The doctors advise that former president Nelson Mandela is responding positively to the treatment he is undergoing for a recurring lung infection,” Zuma’s office had said in a short statement Thursday.
The Nobel peace laureate was conscious when he was admitted, presidency spokesman Mac Maharaj, who was in prison with Mandela on Robben Island, had told AFP.
It is the second time this month that Mandela has been admitted to hospital, after spending a night for checkups on March 9.
That followed a nearly three-week hospital stay in December, when Mandela was treated for another lung infection and underwent gallstone surgery, after which he was released for home-based care.
The series of hospitalisations has seen an outpouring of prayers, but has also seen South Africans come to terms with the mortality of their national hero.
“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,” Zuma said.
Mandela is idolised in his home nation, where he is seen as the architect of the country’s peaceful transition from a white-minority ruled police state to hope-filled democracy.
Nearly 20 years after he came to power in 1994 he remains a unifying symbol in a country still riven by racial tensions and deep inequality.
Labour unrest, high-profile crimes, grinding poverty and corruption scandals have effectively ended the honeymoon enjoyed after Mandela ushered in the “Rainbow Nation”.
“He is the voice that holds the country together,” said Kasturi Pandaram in Durban.
“He’s been a stalwart and I think if anything should happen to him now, with the state the country is in, I think it’s going to fall apart,” she said.
— A figure from another era —
While Mandela the symbol bestrides South African politics, the man has long since exited the political stage and for the country’s large young population he is a figure from another era, serving as president for just one term from 1994 to 1999.
He has not appeared in public since South Africa’s football World Cup final in 2010, six years after retiring from public life.
Still, his nearly life-long struggle against apartheid resonates.
“We are deeply concerned with Nelson Mandela’s health — he is a hero, I think, to all of us,” US President Barack Obama said.
“When we think of a single individual that embodies the kind of leadership qualities that I think we all aspire to, the person’s name that comes up is Nelson Mandela. So we wish him all the very best,” Obama added.
“He is as strong physically as he has been in character and in leadership over so many decades. Hopefully he will come out of this latest challenge.”
The name and location of the hospital where Mandela is being treated were not disclosed, to allow the medical team to focus on their work and to shield the family from the intense media interest.
“We know they are going through a difficult time and we want to ensure that their privacy is maintained,” said Maharaj.
In the past he has been hospitalised at a clinic in Pretoria.
Media crews were stationed on Friday in Pretoria and outside his home in Johannesburg.
Away from the public eye Mandela has grown increasingly frail.
His December hospital stay was his longest since he walked free from 27 years of apartheid jail in 1990.
Earlier this month, his friend and renowned human rights lawyer George Bizos, who defended Mandela during his 1960s treason trial, said the ex-president was aware of current political events but was having some memory lapses.
Respiratory infections are often a key cause of death among the elderly, according to pulmonologist Bertrand Dautzenberg.