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Nelson Mandela in hospital: South Africa holds its breath once more as co-defendant calls for nation to 'release' its hero

The former president’s co-defendant in trial said there was a possibility he would not be well again

Nelson Mandela was visited by family members on Sunday at the hospital in South Africa where he was spending a third night receiving treatment for a recurring lung infection.

There has been no update on the  94-year-old’s health since Saturday when doctors described his condition as “serious but stable”. The spokesman for the presidency, Mac Maharaj, said it was “positive” that he was breathing unassisted, but warned he would only issue an update if there was news from doctors.

His eldest surviving daughter, Makaziwe Mandela and Ndileka Mandela, one of his 17 grandchildren, were seen leaving the hospital where he is believed to be in Pretoria on Saturday. His wife, the noted human rights activist Graca Machel, has remained by his bedside.

It is the fourth time in less than a year that the former president has been hospitalised and the last pictures of him, released in April, showed him to be frail and unresponsive. His last public appearance came three years ago when South Africa hosted the World Cup. It is now 14 years since he stood down after a single term as President.

The recurring hospital visits appear to have had an impact on the public mood in South Africa where he is revered as a moral anchor to a nation with serious economic and political woes.

South Africans gathered on Sunday to pray for their ailing leader, with hundreds joining mass at the Regina Mundi Catholic church in Soweto where Mr Mandela once lived. But amid the support there is also mounting fatigue with the intense media scrutiny of his health and for the first time the number of voices calling for the Nobel Peace laureate to be allowed to pass away peacefully have balanced those calling for his swift recovery.

One of Mr Mandela’s co-defendants at the 1960s Rivonia trial, which saw him imprisoned for 27 years, much of it on Robben Island off Cape Town, said that there was a possibility he would not be well again. The chronic lung problems of the man who helped to end white minority rule in South Africa date back to a bout of tuberculosis he suffered during his long imprisonment.

“The family must release him so that God may have his own way,”  Andrew Mlangeni, told the local newspaper, the Sunday Times. “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.”

The website of the Sowetan newspaper quoted an unidentified tweet that read: “Let him die with dignity. It’s not a circus folks.”

As well as the Pretoria hospital, Mr Mandela’s Houghton home in Johannesburg, and the township where he once lived and the village where he grew up, have all been staked out by media outlets.

Amid the warm tributes there was particular anger reserved for the “vile” comments from British National Party leader Nick Griffin in which he referred to South Africa’s first black president as a “murdering old terrorist”.