Nelson Mandela was recovering in hospital last night after a procedure on an abdominal condition. The 93-year-old former president of South Africa has suffered from deteriorating health in recent years and the latest hospital visit will intensify fears about his physical condition.
President Jacob Zuma said in a statement that Mr Mandela "had a long-standing abdominal complaint and doctors feel it needs proper specialist medical attention". He described his predecessor as "fine and fully conscious" and said that the doctors were "satisfied with his condition". Mac Maharaj, a presidential spokesman, said the former president was in "good spirits and well".
Speculation about the anti-apartheid leader's health intensified initially when officials tried to obscure the nature of his illness, and even the location where he was being treated.
Explaining the secrecy surrounding the hospital visit, Mr Maharaj said: "We didn't want to announce it in advance because we didn't want to cause panic and speculation." Reports last night said Mr Mandela was being treated for a hernia, but officials refused to confirm the speculation, citing patient confidentiality. It was also unclear whether Mr Mandela's wife, Graça, was with him.
It is most likely that he was either treated in Pretoria's military hospital or Johannesburg's Milpark hospital, where he received care for a respiratory infection last year.
He is expected to leave hospital today or tomorrow if he makes a full recovery.
Mr Maharaj said: "He was in good health before admission in hospital, but doctors felt the complaint needed a thorough investigation. He underwent a diagnostic procedure as part of his ongoing medical management. We are happy that he is not in any danger and thank the doctors for their hard work and professionalism."
Mr Mandela has retired from public life and was, until last month, living in his home town of Qunu in the Eastern Cape. In January, he moved back to Johannesburg, ostensibly so that his home in Qunu could be improved – though it was also reported that the move enabled him to be closer to better-quality medical care.
In January last year, his health was reported to be failing and several rumours circulated that the former president had died. The Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, issued a statement saying Mr Mandela was "frail".
He rarely appears in public now, though he made an exception when the World Cup came to South Africa in 2010, appearing for the tournament's closing ceremony. He also had a private meeting with the American First Lady, Michelle Obama, when she came to South Africa with her daughters last year.
Mr Mandela, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, became South Africa's first black president in 1994 after spending 27 years in prison for his fight against racist apartheid rule. In South Africa, he is more commonly known as Madiba – his Xhosa clan name – as a sign of respect.
Mr Mandela's last surviving sibling, his sister Makhulu Nothusile Bhulehluthi, died last month near Qunu, aged 82. Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, their father, had several wives and 31 children.
The British actor Idris Elba revealed last week that he has been chosen to play Mandela in a big-screen adaptation of the leader's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.