— South African President Jacob Zuma on Thursday visited anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela for the second time in under 24 hours, a sign of growing concern about the former president’s health. Mandela has remained in critical condition in a Pretoria hospital for five days, but his condition slightly improved Thursday, officials said.
Nelson Mandela has struggled for most of his life: first against South Africa’s racist apartheid system, then for 27 long years in prison, and then to bring his fractured nation together as its president.
His past 19 days in a Pretoria hospital have been a struggle as well, as the former fighter has battled a serious lung infection. For two weeks he was in serious but stable condition; the past five days, he has been in critical condition.
President Jacob Zuma visited Mandela twice in under 24 hours; first late on Wednesday and then again on Thursday afternoon. Zuma determined Wednesday night that Mandela’s condition was severe enough for him to cancel a planned one-day trip to Mozambique. On Thursday he was more optimistic, saying the former president had improved overnight.
Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj praised Mandela’s resilience. The two men got to know each other while imprisoned at Robben Island. Maharaj referred to the former leader by his clan name, Madiba.
“Well, we all know that Madiba is a fighter. He has been through so much, both at the health level and in other arenas of life. He’s endured it all. I think that he has phenomenal willpower. And this is a matter that’s between him and God,” said Maharaj.
President Zuma’s office on Thursday confirmed that the ailing leader’s health has not disrupted U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to visit South Africa on Friday. The two leaders will hold bilateral talks on Saturday.
Mandela’s daughter Makaziwe told state broadcaster SABC that “anything is imminent” with regards to her father’s condition in an exclusive interview aired Thursday.
“He doesn’t look good, Vuyo, I mean, I’m not going to lie. But I think that for us, as his children and grandchildren, we still have this hope because, you know, when we talk to him, he will flutter trying to open his eyes and will open his eyes. When you touch him he still responds, and I think for us, as his progeny, as long as Tata is still responding, when we talk to him, when we touch him, I think that gives us hope,” she said.
She also criticized the intense media coverage her father has received. Maharaj, too, has verbally tussled with journalists who have pressed the government for detailed information on 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," he said. "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.”
Also Thursday, the ruling African National Congress said they would start holding daily prayer sessions for Mandela. Spokesman Keith Khoza said the party urged people to pray for Mandela’s full recovery.
Mandela was the first ANC leader to be elected South African president, and the first black man to be elected president in the nation’s first all-inclusive elections in 1994. He was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in bringing apartheid to an end.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ex-wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela, holds a candle during a prayer service for the ailing Mandela at a church in Johannesburg, July 5, 2013.
Ndaba Mandela (R), one of former South African President Nelson Mandela's grandsons, and an unidentified companion leave the Mediclinic Heart Hospital, where the former president is being treated, in Pretoria, July 5, 2013.
Well-wishers pray in support of ailing former South African President Nelson Mandela in front of the Mediclinic Heart Hospital where he is being treated in Pretoria, July 5, 2013.
Daughter, Makaziwe Mandela, leaves after visiting the Mediclinic Heart Hospital where former South African President Nelson Mandela is being treated in Pretoria, July 5, 2013.
Well-wishers post messages outside the hospital where ailing former President Nelson Mandela is being treated in Pretoria, July 5, 2013.
A well-wisher weeps as he pays his respects outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital, where ailing former South African President Nelson Mandela is being treated in Pretoria, July 1, 2013.
Boys hold a candle as they pay their respects outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital, where ailing former South African President Nelson Mandela is being treated in Pretoria, July 1, 2013.
Men stand next to a banner covered with portraits of Nelson Mandela to a wall outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria, June 28, 2013.
A well-wisher pays respect to ailing former South African President Nelson Mandela outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria, June 27, 2013.
Granddaughters Zaziwe Dlamini-Manaway and Tukwini Mandela are surrounded by the media outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria, June 27, 2013.
Children release 95 white balloons to mark the upcoming birthday of ailing former South African President Nelson Mandela outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria, June 27, 2013.