Nelson Mandela is “in good spirits” and making progress as he spent a third night in hospital for a lung infection, South Africa’s government said, seeking to soothe fears over the anti-apartheid hero.
Messages of concern for the ailing 94-year-old, one of the towering figures of modern history, have poured in since he was admitted to hospital late on Wednesday and South African President Jacob Zuma’s spokesman gave an upbeat report on Friday.
“He was in good spirits, he had a full breakfast and the doctors report that he’s making steady progress,” Mac Maharaj said. “He sat up and had his breakfast in bed.”
Mandela’s recent health troubles have triggered an outpouring of prayers, but have also seen South Africans come to terms with the mortality of the revered Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The former president is idolized in his home nation, where he is seen as the architect of South Africa’s peaceful transition from a white-minority ruled police state to a 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.
It is the second time this month that he has been admitted to hospital, after spending a night for check-ups on March 9.
That followed a nearly three-week hospital stay in December last year, when Mandela was treated for another lung infection and underwent gallstone surgery.
He was diagnosed with early-stage tuberculosis in 1988, during his 27 years in prison under the apartheid regime, and has long had problems with his lungs. He has also had treatment for prostate cancer and suffered stomach ailments.
Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, told public broadcaster SABC that “Tata [father] is doing well.”
“He’s responding very well to treatment,” said Madikizela-Mandela, who attended a church service in Soweto, where the congregation prayed for Mandela.
However, officials said doctors’ reports of Mandela’s steady progress should be taken in context.
“Yes, indeed it is good news, but we need to be cautious, bear in mind his age,” said presidential spokesman Maharaj, who was a political prisoner with Mandela at Robben Island prison off the coast of Cape Town.
While Mandela’s legacy continues to loom large over South African politics, he has long since exited the political stage and for the large young population, he is a figure from another era, serving as president for just one term.
He has not appeared in public since South Africa’s soccer World Cup final in 2010.
Labor unrest, high-profile crimes, grinding poverty and corruption scandals have effectively ended the honeymoon enjoyed after Mandela ushered in the “Rainbow Nation,” but his decades-long struggle against apartheid resonates.
Ajith Deena, who lives near Durban, said Mandela is so beloved because he forgave his apartheid captors and said: “Let’s go forward together, let’s forget the past and let’s move forward as one nation, one country.”
He will leave South Africa on “a good footing,” Deena said. “It will be a big loss to the country even though he’s not in the public eye. It’s through him that we are where we are.”
The name and location of the hospital where Mandela is being treated have not been disclosed, to allow his medical team to focus on their work and to shield the family from the intense media interest.