After four days of treatment for a lung infection during which there has been little indication of his condition, Nelson Mandela was today said to be “responding better to treatment”.
South Africa's President Jacob Zuma told parliament in Cape Town that “we are very happy with the progress that he's now making, following a difficult few days.”
It was the first report of improvement in a persistent lung condition that has dogged the 94-year-old since he contracted tuberculosis during his long imprisonment, much of it in harsh conditions on Robben Island. The anti-Apartheid hero was rushed to hospital on Saturday after suffering a recurrence of the lung condition.
The vigil for South Africa's first black president has reminded the country how far it has drifted from the extraordinary optimism that accompanied the birth of the Rainbow Nation in 1994. After four hospital visits in less than one year, there is a growing public acceptance that the “father of the nation” and its main unifying figure will not be with them much longer.
Mr Zuma, who assumed the presidency with a corruption investigation hanging over him and has faced a string of scandals since taking office, took the opportunity to revisit past successes:
“Our country is a much better place to live in now than it was before 1994, even though we still have so much work to do,” he told parliament.
Forty-nine years ago Mr Mandela was sentenced to prison for sabotage and conspiring to overthrow the white minority government. During the course of his 27-year internment his reputation was transformed from that of a terrorist to a symbol of the injustice of Apartheid. When he emerged from prison his efforts to reconcile South Africa's bitter racial divides saw his awarded the Nobel Peace prize.
He is being treated at a hospital in the capital, Pretoria, where a police guard has been stationed outside and a steady stream of his relatives have been coming and going. The street outside is lined with the outside broadcast vehicles of most of the world's leading media outlets.
Among the torrent of tributes that have accompanied the former president's latest illness was one from the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Speaking in New Zealand, he cautioned that the world would have to continue without South Africa's icons of freedom like Mr Mandela and Desmond Tutu. They were ageing and frail and “logically they are going to go,” he said.
“Nelson Mandela is very ill, Desmond Tutu also quite old... [The] important thing is their teaching, their spirit must carry.”