JOHANNESBURG // South Africa's president yesterday said a critically ill Nelson Mandela was "asleep" when he visited the 94-year-old at the hospital, and urged the country to pray for Mr Mandela, describing him as the "father of democracy" who made extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of his people.
President Jacob Zuma said doctors were doing everything possible to help the former president feel comfortable on his 17th day in a Pretoria hospital, but refused to give details of his condition, saying: "I'm not a doctor."
The president's press briefing came a day after the government said Mr Mandela's condition had deteriorated and was now critical.
Mr Zuma also said the US president Barack Obama's visit to South Africa would go ahead despite concerns about Mr Mandela's health.
"President Obama is visiting South Africa," he said. "I don't think you stop a visit because somebody's sick."
Mr Obama, who arrives in Africa this week, will visit Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.
Mr Zuma, who in the past has given an overly sunny view of Mr Mandela's health, briefly spoke of his visit on Sunday night to Mr Mandela in a hospital in the capital. The visit was mentioned in a presidential statement on the same night that said Mr Mandela, previously described as being in serious but stable condition, had lapsed into critical condition within the previous 24 hours.
"It was late, he was already asleep," Mr Zuma said. "And we then had a bit of a discussion with the doctors as well as his wife, Graca Machel, and we left."
The president said South Africans should accept that Mandela is old, and he urged people to pray for their former leader.
"Madiba is critical in the hospital, and this is the father of democracy. This is the man who fought and sacrificed his life to stay in prison, the longest-serving prisoner in South Africa," Mr Zuma said, using Mandela's clan name.
Mr Mandela, who became South Africa's first black president after the end of apartheid in 1994, was hospitalised for what the government said was a recurring lung infection. This is his fourth hospitalisation since December.
Mr Mandela was jailed for 27 years under white racist rule and was released 23 years ago, in 1990. He then played a leading role in steering the divided country from the apartheid era to an all-race democracy. As a result of his sacrifice and peacemaking efforts, he is seen by many around the world as a symbol of reconciliation.
Yesterday also marked the 18th anniversary of Mr Mandela's appearance at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final in Johannesburg, a day still enshrined as a hugely significant moment for South Africa.
In a move crucial in unifying sections of a previously fractured society, Mr Mandela wore a green and gold Springboks rugby jersey at the final in Johannesburg and brought all South Africans together in support of their national team - once an all-white bastion of the apartheid regime and hated by blacks - which defeated New Zealand in the match.