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Mandela Better, but Still Critical

A well-wisher uses his phone to take a picture of a banner of photos of Nelson Mandela, outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital where former South African President Nelson Mandela is being treated in Pretoria, South Africa Thursday, July 18, 2013. South Afr
Nelson Mandela once said "it always seems impossible until it’s done," a maxim the former president's life exemplified: weathering a grueling 27-year prison sentence; overturning South Africa’s once-powerful apartheid regime; reconstituting a fractured nation through a philosophy of reconciliation.

It seems almost impossible, too, that Mandela has now spent two months in a Pretoria hospital after being admitted for a recurring lung infection. The president’s office, the lone source of his official medical updates, says he remains "critical but stable" after slipping into critical condition on June 23.

But as his hospital stay lengthens, updates become fewer and fewer, and on Thursday, Mandela's 62nd day, President Jacob Zuma made no mention of his predecessor while accepting an award for bravery.

In the absence of facts, South Africans cling to hope: Get-well cards and signs litter the entrance to the tightly guarded private hospital, where schoolchildren regularly pass singing their well wishes.

Religious leaders sought to capitalize on that hope earlier this week when they visited the hospital to pray with Mandela's family. Bishop Jo Seoka, president of the South African Council of Churches, said Wednesday that the former president was conscious, but that church leaders didn’t get to see him during their visit.

He said the family did not tell church leaders when Mandela might be able to go home.

"To ask questions that only God can answer is beyond us," he said, asking South Africans to view Mandela’s health problems as a call to action.

"Now God is using Madiba in his extended illness to present to us a fresh challenge to unite behind the values that he represents, and that should be the agenda of our nation, in our homes, in our communities, our schools, our institutions and organs of state," said Seoka, referring to Mandela by his clan name.

"The African National Congress is very concerned that Comrade Madiba remains in hospital," said Khusela Sangoni-Khawe, spokeswoman for the ruling party, whose members have been holding prayer vigils around the country.

"Two months is a long time, too long for anybody to be in hospital," she added. "We are, however, encouraged by the reports that we keep getting from the presidency that he is in a stable condition and that he is responding to the medication that he has been given. And we are confident that his stay in hospital is a comfortable one, that the doctors, the nurses, all medical personnel are doing their very best to ensure that he gets out of hospital as soon as possible."

Elected in 1994, after being instrumental in bringing apartheid to an end, Mandela served as South Africa’s first black president.

His health has worsened in recent years. He has been in and out of hospital for much of this year, and between stays has required intensive home-based care.