Former leader stable and breathing on his own in hospital.
It has become an increasingly frequent occurrence and each time the anxiety deepens. At 1.30am local time on Saturday, Nelson Mandela was whisked from his home to hospital with a recurring lung infection.
South Africa's first black President, who turns 95 next month, is said to be in a "serious" condition - a rare choice of word for government officials who have played down past health scares.
But they also insisted he is "stable", conscious, able to breathe on his own and believed to be communicating with his family.
His wife Graca Machel, who on Friday cancelled a trip to a hunger summit in London, accompanied him to hospital and remains at his bedside.
This is Mandela's fourth hospitalisation since last December.
It has become a solemnly familiar ritual with media gathering outside hospital and home, forensic scrutiny of government communications, a smattering of reckless tweets and a collective shudder among millions of South Africans. Each time old age and mortality are pitched against medical science and one man's astounding physical and mental resilience.
Mandela was taken from his home in Houghton, an upmarket suburb of Johannesburg, to a hospital in Pretoria.
Hundreds of people gathered to pray for Mandela at Sunday Mass at the Regina Mundi Catholic church in Soweto, Reuters reported. "We wish him speedy recovery, he must get well," Soweto resident Mlugisi Sekhosana said. "We know what he did for us in South Africa. All the nation, black and white, we wish him well."
The Sunday Times headlined its story with "It's time to let him go", quoting a longtime friend of Mandela's, Andrew Mlangeni. "The family must release him so that God may have his own way. They must release him spiritually and put their faith in the hands of God. Once the family releases him, the people of South Africa will follow."
Mandela has been vulnerable to respiratory problems since contracting tuberculosis during his 27-year imprisonment under apartheid. In December 2012 he was treated for a lung infection and had gallstones removed.
He was last discharged from hospital on April 6 after doctors drained fluid from his lung area after diagnosing him with pneumonia.
Speaking last week, his long-time friend and lawyer George Bizos said he had seen Mandela a couple of weeks ago. "He's okay. His memory is not what it ought to be. He's conscious."
"I think it's a very balanced picture that he is 95 [in July], it's a recurring illness, he's been treated successfully for it before," Zuma's spokesman Mac Maharaj told Sky News. "There are no guarantees for ever. And right now what they [the doctors] are saying is he's stable ... They said, 'Look, he's able to breathe on his own'. I think that's important. So I don't want to put a rosy picture and an optimistic picture, nor do I want to paint a bad picture and let's give up all hope."
Maharaj, who was imprisoned with Mandela on Robben Island, said the Nobel peace laureate was conscious and thought to be communicating with his family. "He's a fighter. Let's just face it, he's been through this many times and he's been through worse issues. He's survived. I think at his age his willpower is strong enough.
"I think for all of us who are concerned, I understand that our admiration, our hopes for him, we'd like him to be with us for ever, but we also know that like all human beings, our life is transient and therefore with our prayers, with our thoughts, I know we will help him to be strong."
In April, South Africa's public broadcaster showed footage of a visit by Zuma and other ANC leaders to Mandela at his home. Some viewers complained that Mandela looked unwell and was being exploited. Maharaj insisted: "There are moments when he looks terribly frail and there are other moments, within minutes, he changes and you think he looks completely normal and usual."
- Observer, AFP