JOHANNESBURG – Former South African President Nelson Mandela has been hospitalized in serious condition with a lung infection, according to government officials here, the latest in a worrisome series of medical ailments plaguing the nation’s venerated first post-apartheid black leader.
South African presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said in a statement that Mandela, 94, fell ill several days ago, but his condition deteriorated overnight and he was transferred to Pretoria early Saturday.
“He remains in a serious but stable condition. The former president is receiving expert medical care and doctors are doing everything possible to make him better and comfortable,” Maharaj said.
On Saturday evening, the president’s office said it would not release minute-by-minute reports on Mandela’s condition and would announce an update only in the event of a major change in his condition. On previous occasions, the South African government has downplayed the seriousness of Mandela’s illnesses.
The government’s frank admission that Mandela was in serious condition underscored the fears over the elderly statesman’s increasing frailty.
Comments from officials also suggested that Mandela’s current illness may be graver than ones in the past. African National Congress spokesman Jackson Mthembu told Sky News that the party was “prepared for the worst.” He said it was “time for the nation to hold hands and pray.”
Maharaj said President Jacob Zuma wished Mandela a speedy recovery and called on people to respect the Mandela family’s privacy. He said South Africans would like Mandela to be with them forever.
“But we also know we are all human beings – our life is transient – and therefore, with our prayers, with our thoughts, I know we will help him to be strong,” Maharaj said.
Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, canceled an appearance in London, where she was to address a summit on hunger, and was at Mandela’s bedside.
Maharaj told eNCA television that the former president, known affectionately in South Africa by his clan name, Madiba, was breathing without a respirator and that the condition was “treatable on its own.”
“What I am told is that he is breathing on his own and I think that is a positive sign. Madiba is a fighter and at his age, as long as he is fighting, he will be fine,” Maharaj said.
Dozens of news crews gathered outside Mandela’s home in suburban Houghton, north of Johannesburg, on Saturday, while others waited outside the hospital in Pretoria.
Mandela has not been active in public life for almost a decade. But he remains an enormously important symbol of hope and unity in South Africa, a country with lingering racial tensions, widespread poverty and massive social problems.