Johannesburg: Anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela remained in a critical condition in hospital on Monday, leaving millions in South Africa and across the world fearing the worst.
“Former president Mandela remains in a critical condition in hospital. The doctors are doing everything possible to ensure his well-being and comfort,” President Jacob Zuma said in an address televised globally.
Mandela, the hero of black South Africans’ battle for freedom during 27 years in apartheid jails, was rushed to hospital on June 8 with a recurrent lung infection.
Despite intensive treatment at Pretoria’s Mediclinic Heart Hospital, the 94-year-old’s condition appears to have suddenly deteriorated over the last 36 hours.
“All of us in the country should accept that Madiba is now old,” Zuma said, using Mandela’s clan name.
“I think what we need to do as a country is to pray for him to be well and that the doctors do their work.”
Zuma hailed the life of a man seen as the father of the nation and globally as a moral beacon that continues to shine long after he retired from public life.
“He is the father of democracy and this is the man who fought and sacrificed his life,” said Zuma, who spent 10 years in jail on Robben Island at the same time as Mandela.
Zuma visited Mandela on Sunday evening.
“Given the hour that we got to the hospital it was late, he was already asleep,” Zuma said. “(We) saw him and then we had a bit of discussion with the doctors and his wife Graca Machel.”
Mandela, who became South Africa’s first black president in 1994 to end almost 50 years of apartheid rule, is due to celebrate his 95th birthday on July 18.
He has been hospitalised four times since December, mostly for the pulmonary condition that has plagued him for years.
As the world looked on, South Africans resigned themselves to the inevitability of Mandela’s decline.
Flowers, cards, balloons and messages of support were left outside the gate of his Pretoria hospital, where family members were gathered.
“Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do but to pray for him and the doctors that are helping him,” said Phathani Mbath outside the hospital.
In Mthatha, a rural town in the region where Mandela grew up, there was also a sense of anxious resignation.
“It is not up to us to decide what happens now. There is nothing we can do,” said Aphiwe Ngesi a teacher in Mthatha. “All we can do is hope for the best.”
In Washington, the White House said its thoughts and prayers were with Mandela, as US President Barack Obama prepares to visit South Africa.
“We have seen the latest reports from the South African government that former president Mandela is in critical condition,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with him, his family and the people of South Africa.”
Obama leaves on Wednesday on a tour of Africa that will take him to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.
Zuma said the visit would go ahead.
The possibility of a meeting between the first black presidents of both South Africa and the United States has been hotly anticipated, but the White House has said it will defer to Mandela’s family.
Upon his release from jail in 1990 in one of the defining moments of the 20th century, Mandela negotiated an end to white rule and won the country’s first fully democratic elections.
As president he guided the country away from internecine racial and tribal violence.
It was 18 years ago to the day on Monday, in a deeply symbolic moment, he handed the rugby world cup to a victorious Springboks captain Francois Pienaar.
The impact of a black president appearing at this, the most white of South African sporting occasions, still reverberates today.
“Mandela soared above the petty confines of party politics,” said political commentator Daniel Silke.
His extraordinary life story, quirky sense of humour and lack of bitterness to his former oppressors has ensured global appeal for the charismatic leader.
News of Mandela’s deterioration comes as unconfirmed media reports suggested his condition from the beginning was worse than authorities and relatives had suggested.
Both Zuma and presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj refused to comment on the speculation, but said Mandela had not had a heart attack as some reported.
The South African government has been criticised amid revelations that the military ambulance that carried Mandela to hospital developed engine trouble, resulting in a 40-minute delay until a replacement ambulance arrived.
The presidency said Mandela suffered no harm during the wait for another ambulance to take him from his Johannesburg home to a specialist heart clinic in Pretoria 55 kilometres (30 miles) away.
“There were seven doctors in the convoy who were in full control of the situation throughout the period. He had expert medical care,” said Zuma.