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South Africans relieved as Mandela heads home

Doctors say the beloved former president, 92, suffered an acute respiratory infection but is recovering well. His hospital stay had stirred rumors of his death.

January 28, 2011|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • Children display a get-well card at a school near the Johannesburg hospital where Nelson Mandela was being treated. The former South African president was discharged Friday.
Children display a get-well card at a school near the Johannesburg hospital… (Denis Farrell, Associated…)

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — South Africans heaved a sigh of relief after their beloved former president, Nelson Mandela, 92, was discharged from a hospital and returned home Friday.

He was driven home about lunchtime in a military ambulance, after doctors announced he had suffered an acute respiratory infection but was recovering well.

News of the acute illness contradicted earlier reports from the Nelson Mandela Foundation and African National Congress that nothing serious was wrong with Mandela, known affectionately by South Africans by his clan name, Madiba.

Mandela, South Africa's liberation hero, is rarely seen in public because of his age and frailty, but has enormous stature, loved by South Africans of all races -- and his health is regarded almost as public property. He's frequently called a living icon and is the continent's most inspiring political leader.

The foundation announced Wednesday that he was having routine tests, then declined to make further statements Thursday, fueling a day of wild rumors that the former president was dying or had died -- the second whirl of speculation within a few weeks.

Test messages that he was dead flew around the country.

Acting President Kgalema Motlanthe, who visited Mandela on Friday morning before a news conference, said Mandela was sitting up in bed and teasing his wife, Graça Machel, and nurses.

"When I walked in, his exact words [were that] he was very happy to see me," he said, adding that Mandela urged him to attend the news conference to inform the nation of his health. "He's in good spirits," Motlanthe added.

South African military Surgeon General Vejaynand Ramlakan said Mandela would get the same medical treatment at home that he would have received in the hospital, and paid tribute to the 92-year-old's positive attitude to the ailments of age.

"He is stable, but subject to intense monitoring. For a 92-year-old, he surprises us on a daily basis."

Motlanthe said Mandela received more than 10,000 messages from well-wishers while he was hospitalized.

As South African editors called for more openness over Mandela's health, Motlanthe admitted the issue had been poorly handled and said that in the future the South African presidency would handle the issue.

However, the statement from President Jacob Zuma -- who was in Davos for the World Economic Forum on Thursday -- had done little to clarify Mandela's health, merely saying he was comfortable and in good hands.

As Mandela's ambulance drove home, a group of children from a nearby school sang the national anthem and held placards wishing him good health.

Nic Dawes, editor of the South African weekly Mail and Guardian, explained why Mandela meant so much to the nation: "What South Africans feel for Madiba is not simply affection or respect. Even love may not be a strong enough word. His presence is part of the structure of our national being. We worry that we may not be quite ourselves without him."

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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