— South African President Jacob Zuma has cancelled a one-day trip to neighboring Mozambique amid reports that anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela remains in critical condition in a Pretoria hospital for a fifth day. His condition is overshadowing a planned visit to South Africa by U.S. President Barack Obama, but has not yet prompted the American president to change his plans.
The South African presidency remains tight-lipped about medical details, but it appears the former South African leader may be in a dire condition.
“Now and again,” Nelson Mandela once said, “ there have been rumors that my health has broken down and that I am on my last legs."
He said that in 1981. Now, 32 years later - with a presidential term and a Nobel Peace Prize in the rearview mirror - there may finally be some truth to that rumor.
Nelson Mandela smiles for photographers at his home in Johannesburg September 22, 2005.
Nelson Mandela and his then wife, Winnie, salute well-wishers as he leaves Victor Verster prison on Feb. 11, 1990.
This undated photograph shows Nelson Mandela and his former wife, Winnie.
South African State President Frederik Willem de Klerk and Deputy President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela prior to talks, Cape Town, May 2, 1990.
Nelson Mandela, is seen as he gives the black power salute to 120,000 ANC supporters in Soweto's Soccer City stadium, Feb. 13, 1990.
Then-African National Congress President Nelson Mandela salutes the crowd in Galeshewe Stadium near Kimberley, South Africa, Feb. 25, 1994.
Nelson Mandela and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II ride in a carriage outside Buckingham Palace on the first day of a state visit to Britain, July 9, 1996.
President Nelson Mandela and Britain's Prince Charles shake hands alongside members of the Spice Girls, Nov. 1, 1997.
Former U.S President Bill Clinton and former South African President Nelson Mandela speak during a Gala night in Westminster Hall, London, July 2, 2003.
Oscar winning South African actress Charlize Theron weeps at her meeting with former South African President Nelson Mandela at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Houghton, March 11,2004.
Nelson Mandela and his wife, Graca Machel, wave to the audience during a Live 8 concert in Johannesburg, July 2, 2005.
Nelson Mandela jokes with youngsters as they celebrate his 89th birthday at the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund in Johannesburg, July 24, 2007.
Former South African president Nelson Mandela, center, followed by his grandson Mandla Mandela, rear right, arrives at the ceremony in Mvezo, South Africa, April 16, 2007.
Nelson Mandela waves to the media as he arrives outside 10 Downing Street, London, August 28, 2007.
Nelson Mandela waves as he arrives to attend the 2010 World Cup football final Netherlands vs. Spain on July 11, 2010 at Soccer City stadium in Soweto.
Nelson Mandela poses for a photograph after receiving a torch to celebrate the African National Congress' centenary in his home village Qunu, May 30, 2012.
South Africa’s beloved anti-apartheid icon is in critical condition in a Pretoria hospital after a 19-day stay. His condition Wednesday night was severe enough to cause President Jacob Zuma to cancel a one-day trip to Mozambique Thursday.
However, presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said the ailing leader’s health has not yet changed U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to visit South Africa on Friday. Maharaj said the two governments were still discussing the situation.
The presidency has been guarded about specific medical details.
“I think all it is saying is that there is sufficient cause for concern. ... Doctors are doing everything possible, but President Zuma has felt that it is more important to be at home. And that’s all it is saying. We’re not saying it is, how far, whether it has deteriorated or not," said Maharaj. "Doctors keep saying his condition is critical, and we accept that for what it means.”
Maharaj has repeatedly tussled with journalists who have pressed the government for detailed information on Mr. Mandela. He has also lashed out over unconfirmed reports about the 94-year-old’s medical condition.
“The rumors are going on. They have been going on for a long time. And we do not want to spend our time contradicting rumors and making that a story to create an atmosphere of panic among the public," Maharaj added. "I think there is already a reasonable atmosphere of somberness, of seriousness in the country, and of people reflecting on the meaning of Mandela, and wanting to celebrate his life. And so that is the space we are sitting in. And we think that working together, with the tasks that media have and government has, and the challenges faced by the family, we can manage this process with dignity and with regard to privacy.”
The concern about Mandela’s condition is widespread and goes beyond the borders of South Africa. He is without doubt South Africa’s most beloved citizen because of his decades-long struggle to end the racist apartheid system. He spent 27 years in prison for that cause, to emerge triumphant and preach forgiveness among the nation’s divided race groups.