Mandela critical, but his health improved overnight, South African president says

Former South African President Nelson Mandela’s health has "improved" overnight, but he is still in critical condition, the government says.

Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist who spent 27 years in prison before becoming the country’s first black president, was reportedly hospitalized on June 8 for a recurring lung infection.

President Jacob Zuma's office said in a statement Thursday that he received an update on Mandela’s condition from the medical team that is treating the 94-year-old in Pretoria.

Zuma, who visited the hospital Thursday, said in the statement that the former president is "much better" than when Zuma visited him on the previous night. Zuma has canceled a trip to Mozambique and also added that his office is disturbed by what it calls rumors about Mandela's health.

As worries over Mandela mounted, Mac Maharaj, the presidential spokesman, declined to comment on reports that Mandela was on life support.

More On This...

    "I cannot comment on the clinical details of these reports because that would breach the confidentiality of the doctor/patient relationship," Maharaj said in an interview with South Africa's Radio 702.

    A family member told Fox News on Thursday that Mandela was on life support.

    The treatment Mandela is currently receiving includes a ventilator to assist his breathing, as well as renal dialysis. The family has reportedly been given the option of stopping that treatment.

    Mandela's oldest daughter, Makaziwe, told SABC radio after visiting the hospital Thursday that Mandela's health apparently took a turn for the worse, but the family is not giving up hope on a recovery, as Mandela is still responding to touch.

    "I won't lie, it doesn't look good," she said, according to Reuters. "But as I say, if we speak to him, he responds and tries to open his eyes. He's still there. He might be waning off, but he's still there."

    She also lashed out at foreign media for their coverage of Mandela, comparing reporters stationed outside the hospital to vultures hovering over the carcass of a lion.

    "At this point as a family, as an African, I know that at this time you have to be at peace ... you have to have a sense of decorum. That is what is required. I don't know how people come here and just violate everything in the book ... Is this because we are an African country?" Makaziwe said on SABC, according to the Mail & Guardian. "There is sort of a racist element with many of the foreign media where they just cross boundaries."

    Ndileka Mandela said Thursday that her grandfather's condition was "critical but stable," but called the presence of supporters outside the hospital was a "comfort" to the family.

    Beginning a trip to Africa, U.S. President Barack Obama said in Senegal on Thursday that his thoughts and prayers were with South Africans and in particular the Mandela family.

    "And if and when he passes from this place, one thing I think we'll all know is that his legacy is one that will linger on throughout the ages," Obama said.

    South Africans were torn on Wednesday between the desire not to lose Mandela, who defined the aspirations of so many of his compatriots, and resignation that the beloved former prisoner and president is approaching the end of his life.

    A tide of emotional tributes is building on social media as hand-written messages and flowers are being laid outside the hospital and Mandela's home. On Wednesday, about 20 children from a day care center posted a hand-made card outside the hospital and recited a poem.

    "Hold on, old man," was one of the lines in the Zulu poem, according to the South African Press Association.

    In recent days, international leaders, celebrities, athletes and others have praised Mandela, not just as the man who steered South Africa through its tense transition from white racist rule to democracy two decades ago, but as a universal symbol of sacrifice and reconciliation.

    In South Africa's Eastern Cape province, where Mandela grew up, a traditional leader said the time was near for Mandela, who is also known by his clan name, Madiba.

    "I am of the view that if Madiba is no longer enjoying life, and is on life support systems, and is not appreciating what is happening around him, I think the good Lord should take the decision to put him out of his suffering," said the tribal chief, Phathekile Holomisa.

    "I did speak to two of his family members, and of course, they are in a lot of pain, and wish that a miracle might happen, that he recovers again, and he becomes his old self again,"he said. "But at the same time they are aware there is a limit what miracles you can have."

    For many South Africans, Mandela's decline is a far more personal matter, echoing the protracted and emotionally draining process of losing one of their own elderly relatives.

    One nugget of wisdom about the arc of life and death came from Matthew Rusznyah, a 9-year-old boy who stopped outside Mandela's home in the Johannesburg neighborhood of Houghton to show his appreciation.

    "We came because we care about Mandela being sick, and we wish we could put a stop to it, like snap our fingers," he said. "But we can't. It's how life works."

    His mother, Lee Rusznyah, said Mandela had made the world a better place.

    "All of us will end," Thabo Makgoba, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday. "We just want him to be peacefully released, whatever he's feeling at this moment, and to be reunited with his Maker at the perfect time, when God so wills."

    The archbishop said: "Ultimately, we are all mortal. At some stage or another, we all have to die, and we have to move on, we have to be recalled by our Maker and Redeemer. We have to create that space for Madiba, to come to terms within himself, with that journey."

    On Tuesday, Makgoba visited Mandela and offered a prayer in which he wished for a "tpeaceful, perfect, end" for the anti-apartheid leader, who was taken to the Pretoria hospital to be treated for what the government said was a recurring lung infection.

    In the prayer, he asked for courage to be granted to Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, and others who love him "at this hard time of watching and waiting," and he appealed for divine help for the medical team treating Mandela.

    Visitors to the hospital on Wednesday included Mandela's former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The couple divorced in 1996.

    Mandela, whose 95th birthday is on July 18, served a single five-year term as president and afterward focused on charitable causes, but he withdrew from public life years ago and became increasingly frail in recent years. He last made a public appearance in 2010 at the World Cup soccer tournament, which was hosted by South Africa. At that time, he did not speak to the crowd and was bundled against the cold in a stadium full of fans.

    On April 29, state television broadcast footage of a visit by Zuma and other leaders of the ruling party, the African National Congress, to Mandela's home. Zuma said at the time that Mandela was in good shape, but the footage — the first public images of Mandela in nearly a year — showed him silent and unresponsive, even when Zuma tried to hold his hand.

    "Let's accept instead of crying," said Lucas Aedwaba, a security officer in Pretoria who described Mandela as a hero. "Let's celebrate that the old man lived and left his legacy."

    Fox News' Greg Palkot contributed to this report.

    The Associated Press contributed to this report