JOHANNESBURG – Former South African President Nelson Mandela remains in critical condition Monday in a Pretoria hospital, described by South Africa's president Jacob Zuma as being "asleep" when he visited the stricken anti-apartheid hero Sunday evening.
Zuma told at least 60 foreign and South African journalists that doctors are doing everything possible to ensure the 94-year-old's well-being and comfort on his 17th day in the hospital. The president repeated some of the content of a statement issued Sunday and refused to give any further details about Mandela's condition, saying: "I'm not a doctor."
Using the term of affection and clan name for Mandela, Zuma told reporters, "Madiba is critical in the hospital, and this is the father of democracy. This is the man who fought and sacrificed his life to stay in prison, the longest-serving prisoner in South Africa. He is one of those who has contributed to democracy,"
Mandela was being treated for a lung infection. He has been hospitalized four times since December for respiratory problems after a history of lung issues, dating back to his time as a political prisoner on Robbin Island, according to the Times Live website.
"All of us in the country should accept the fact that Madiba is now old. As he ages, his health will ... trouble him and I think what we need to do as a country is to pray for him," Zuma said.
When asked about President Obama's upcoming visit to South Africa, Zuma said it will go on, despite concerns about Mandela's health.
"President Obama is visiting South Africa," Zuma said. "I don't think you stop a visit because somebody's sick."
Obama, who arrives in Africa this week, is due to visit Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.
White House spokesman Jay Carney wouldn't speculate about how Mandela's health would impact Obama's upcoming visit to South Africa, saying only that the U.S. president "continues to look forward to his trip."
"The president obviously has long seen Nelson Mandela as one of his personal heroes, and I think he's not alone in that in this country and around the world," Carney said.
Meanwhile, Zuma-- who in the past has given an overly sunny view of Mandela's health-- briefly described his visit to the hospital in the capital and seeing Mandela.
"It was late, he was already asleep. And we then had a bit of a discussion with the doctors as well as his wife, Graca Machel, and we left," Zuma said.
Machel, who did not speak publicly over the weekend, thanked Mandela supporters last week for their support during this difficult time.
“So much love and generosity from South Africans, Africans across the continent, and thousands more from across the world, have come our way to lighten the burden of anxiety; bringing us love, comfort and hope,” Machel said in a statement.
"We have felt the closeness of the world and the deepest meaning of strength and peace. Our gratitude is difficult to express. But the love and peace we feel give yet more life to the simple Thank you!” Machal said, according to a report on the SouthAfrican.com.
Many South Africans are praying for Mandela but wishing him peace.
“If it’s his time to go, he can go. I wish God can look after him,” nurse Petunia Mafuyeka told the South African Times Live as she headed to work in Johannesburg.
“We will miss him very much. He fought for us to give us freedom. We will remember him every day. When he goes I will cry,” Mafuyeka said..
But there was some concern among Mandela supporters that doctors may try to prolong his life.
“I’m worried that they’re keeping him alive. I feel they should let him go,” Doris Lekalakala, a claims manager, told Times Live. “The man is old. Let nature take its course. He must just rest.”
Asked why none of Mandela's doctors had been made available for a news briefing, presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said an arrangement had been made in consultation with Mandela's family whereby information would be provided through a "single source in an authoritative way."
"We've come to that arrangement on the basis that we need to respect the privacy of the family, we need to adhere to doctor-patient confidentiality," he said.
"You can be assured that what we are saying is based on agreement with the doctors," Maharaj said.
Doctors approve the text of announcements on Mandela's health, and believe some media reporting has transgressed professional ethics, he said.
Mandela is revered among most of South Africa’s 53 million people as the architect of the peaceful transition to multiracial democracy after three centuries of white domination, according to Times Live.
He was jailed for 27 years under white racist rule and released 23 years ago, in 1990. He then played a leading role in steering the divided country from the apartheid era to an all-race democracy, becoming South Africa's first black president in all-race elections in 1994.
As a result of his sacrifice and peacemaking efforts, he is seen by many around the world as a symbol of reconciliation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.