x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

South Africa holds its breath for Mandela's recovery

Worldwide well-wishings flow in for leader still seen as integral to country's political stability.

A churchgoer in Soweto prays for the former South African president, Nelson Mandela, who is in hospital with a recurring lung infection. Denis Farrell / AP Photo
A churchgoer in Soweto prays for the former South African president, Nelson Mandela, who is in hospital with a recurring lung infection. Denis Farrell / AP Photo

JOHANNESBURG // South Africans prayed for Nelson Mandela as he spent a second day in hospital yesterday with a lung infection that has sparked worldwide concern for the ailing peace icon.

There was no official update on Mr Mandela, 94, after his second night in the hospital. His condition was described as "serious but stable" on Saturday, and the former president received visits from family members throughout the day.

The presidency spokesman, Mac Maharaj, who also served time with Mr Mandela on Robben Island, said on Saturday that he was in a "serious" condition, in an unusually sombre description of his state of health.

But he added that Mr Mandela was breathing on his own.

The anti-apartheid leader has now been taken to a hospital four times since December, with the last discharge coming on April 6 after doctors diagnosed him with pneumonia and drained fluid from his lungs.

"The truth of the matter is a simple one. Madiba is a fighter and at his age as long as he is fighting, he'll be fine," Mr Maharaj said, referring to Mr Mandela by his clan name.

Mr Mandela's latest health scare was splashed across the front pages of local newspapers yesterday.

"I am coming to church today with Madiba in my thoughts. I want him to get well," said Nokuthula Tshibasa, 38, a member of the congregation of the Regina Mundi church in Soweto, which was a flashpoint during the anti-apartheid struggle.

South Africans are beginning to come to terms with the mortality of their first black president, who is revered as the father of the "Rainbow Nation" multi-racial democracy.

"I mean, Tata is 94. At 94 what do you expect?" said a 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."

The Sunday Times newspaper carried a front-page picture of the elder statesman smiling and waving under the headline: "It's time to let him go".

"We wish Madiba a speedy recovery, but I think what is important is that his family must release him," a long-time friend, Andrew Mlangeni, 87, was quoted as saying in the newspaper.

The former apartheid-era prisoner, who was jailed for life alongside Mr Mandela in 1964, said it was clear he was not well and it was possible he "might not be well again".

"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."

Mr Mandela's third wife, Graca Machel, has been at his hospital bedside after calling off a trip to London.

Mr Mandela is revered as a global symbol of forgiveness after embracing his former jailers following his release from 27 years in prison.

The British prime minister, David Cameron, said Mr Mandela was in his thoughts, while the White House has also sent good wishes.

Meanwhile, a stream of tourists visited Mr Mandela's former home, now a museum, on Vilakazi Street in Soweto yesterday. Nhlanhla Ngcobobo, a street vendor who works a few steps from the Mandela Family Restaurant next to the former leader's old home, said Mr Mandela was a kind of psychological anchor for his compatriots.

South Africa has held peaceful elections since 1994 and remains an economic powerhouse on the continent, but many worried that the sense of promise that Mr Mandela represented in the early years of democracy was in peril.

"There's a lot of corruption and when Mandela dies, people will start feeling they can do what they like and corruption will be worse than it is," Mr Ngcobobo said. "By him being alive, there's a lot more order."

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse