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Nelson Mandela hospitalized in serious condition with lung infection

The venerated former South African president fell ill several days ago, but his condition deteriorated overnight.

June 08, 2013|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • A church group prays Saturday for the health of former South African President Nelson Mandela on a hill in Johannesburg overlooking the city.
A church group prays Saturday for the health of former South African President… (Denis Farrell, Associated…)

JOHANNESBURG — Former South African President Nelson Mandela has been hospitalized in serious condition with a lung infection, according to government officials here, the latest in a worrisome series of medical ailments plaguing the nation's venerated first post-apartheid black leader.

South African presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said in a statement that Mandela, 94, fell ill several days ago, but his condition deteriorated overnight and he was transferred to Pretoria early Saturday.

"He remains in a serious but stable condition. The former president is receiving expert medical care and doctors are doing everything possible to make him better and comfortable," Maharaj said.

TIMELINE: The life of Nelson Mandela

On Saturday evening, the president's office said it would not release minute-by-minute reports on Mandela's condition and would announce an update only in the event of a major change in his condition. On previous occasions, the South African government has downplayed the seriousness of Mandela's illnesses.

The government's frank admission that Mandela was in serious condition underscored the fears over the elderly statesman's increasing frailty.

Comments from officials also suggested that Mandela's current illness may be graver than ones in the past. African National Congress spokesman, Jackson Mthembu, told Sky News that the party was "prepared for the worst." He said it was "time for the nation to hold hands and pray."

Maharaj said President Jacob Zuma wished Mandela a speedy recovery and called on people to respect the Mandela family's privacy. He said South Africans would like Mandela to be with them forever.

"But we also know we are all human beings — our life is transient — and therefore, with our prayers, with our thoughts, I know we will help him to be strong."

Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, canceled an appearance in London, where she was to address a summit on hunger, and was at Mandela's bedside.

Maharaj told eNCA television that the former president, known affectionately in South Africa by his clan name, Madiba, was breathing without a respirator and that the condition was "treatable on its own."

"What I am told is that he is breathing on his own and I think that is a positive sign. Madiba is a fighter and at his age, as long as he is fighting, he will be fine," Maharaj said.

Mandela was hospitalized for nearly three weeks in December with a lung infection and also underwent gallstone surgery. When he was again admitted in April with a lung infection, South Africans held meetings to pray for his recovery, and people across the globe sent goodwill messages.

It is Mandela's fifth visit to a hospital in two years, each one sparking deep anxiety for South Africans. He has struggled with repeated lung infections after a serious bout of tuberculosis during his 27-year imprisonment during apartheid.

In March, Zuma made comments to the BBC that seemed to be an effort to try to prepare South Africa for the inevitable eventual demise of an elderly man often referred to here as an "icon."

"In Zulu, when someone passes away who is very old, people say he or she has gone home. I think those are some of the things we should be thinking about," Zuma said in the interview.

A few weeks after Mandela's release from the hospital in April, South African television aired footage of Zuma and other African National Congress officials meeting Mandela at his home, with Zuma describing him at the time as doing fine and "up and about." The news clip showed Mandela looking gray and unresponsive, shocking many South Africans because it demonstrated how poor his health had become. Some accused the party of invading his privacy or exploiting a frail old man for political purposes.

The ANC defended the release of the April video footage, saying it would never be used for purposes of political opportunism "or to mask what we believe is the fear of South Africans to accept that President Mandela is mortal and aged."

Dozens of news crews gathered outside Mandela's home in suburban Houghton, north of Johannesburg, on Saturday, while others waited outside the hospital in Pretoria.

Mandela served one term as president and stepped down in 1999 to concentrate on charity work helping children, particularly those orphaned through AIDS. He has not been active in public life for almost a decade. But he remains an enormously important symbol of hope and unity in South Africa, a country with lingering racial tensions, widespread poverty and massive social problems.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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