JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Nelson Mandela was readmitted to a hospital after a worrying recurrence of the lung infection he suffered in December, the South African presidency announced Thursday.
It was the third time Mandela, known affectionately to South Africans by his clan name, Madiba, has been hospitalized since December. The unexpected late-night admission rang alarm bells for many.
South Africa's first black president went into a hospital in Pretoria just before midnight. His wife, Graca Machel, was reportedly at his side and he was being made comfortable, according to officials.
TIMELINE: Nelson Mandela's remarkable life
Every time Mandela is hospitalized, the nation holds its breath. The former president is deeply loved by South Africans for his role in fighting apartheid and bringing freedom to blacks. Even more, he's revered for fostering peace and reconciliation in South Africa after his release from jail, at a time when doomsayers were predicting the country could plunge into a civil war.
South African presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said Mandela, 94, was conscious and responding positively to treatment for a lung infection that had spread rapidly, but didn't comment on how serious his condition is.
"The doctors advise that former President Nelson Mandela is responding positively to the treatment he is undergoing for a recurring lung infection. He remains under treatment and observation in hospital," Maharaj said in a statement. "Doctors are attending to him, ensuring that he has the best possible expert medical treatment and comfort."
Mandela has had a history of respiratory problems after he suffered tuberculosis in 1988 while serving time in the notorious prison on Robben Island.
Mandela spent nearly three weeks in the hospital in December for a severe lung infection and also had a gallstone operation. It was the longest period he had spent in a hospital since his release from prison in 1990.
At the time, South African officials misled the media and public about the seriousness of his illness and which hospital he was in.
Earlier this month he spent a night in a hospital for tests that officials said were routine.
Mandela is under almost continuous medical supervision because of his age and frailty, according to Maharaj. Given that, he said, doctors "acted with the greatest act of caution and responsibility" in hospitalizing him.
"He is receiving treatment to deal with the infection and to keep him comfortable."
President Jacob Zuma issued a statement urging people to pray for Mandela, wishing him a quick recovery.
“We appeal to the people of South Africa and the world to pray for our beloved Madiba and his family and to keep them in their thoughts. We have full confidence in the medical team and know that they will do everything possible to ensure recovery," Zuma said.
Mandela has withdrawn from public life and plays no role in the cutthroat politics of the ruling African National Congress party, but to South Africans, Madiba is considered a living icon who personifies the country at its optimistic best.
His last major public appearance was in 2010 when South Africa hosted soccer's World Cup.
He was hospitalized in February of last year for abdominal surgery to address a complaint that had bothered him for some time. In January 2011 he went to hospital with a respiratory infection.
For much of last year, he lived at his ancestral village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape, but since his December illness he has been at home under medical care in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton.
As media teams set up camps outside the 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria on Thursday, Maharaj called on people to respect the Mandelas' privacy. There was no confirmation which hospital he was in.
"The presidency appeals once again for understanding and privacy in order to allow space to the doctors to do their work," he said.
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