Mandela shows 'continuous improvement'

Nelson Mandela is showing "continuous improvement" while being treated for pneumonia in hospital, South Africa's president said on Thursday after visiting the 94-year-old.

"Madiba is stable and we are thankful that he is responding well to treatment and that he is much better," President Jacob Zuma said, referring to the anti-apartheid hero and former president by his clan name.

Zuma said he had received a briefing from doctors which indicated "continuous improvement in his condition".

The Nobel peace laureate was admitted shortly before midnight on March 27, his third hospital stay since December.

"We are always very concerned when he goes into hospital," his grandson Mandla Mandela told SABC public television.

But he noted that Mandela had undergone several "scheduled hospital visits" for check-ups and monitoring in recent months and said his grandfather was in the "good capable hands" of his doctors.

"We are sure that in no time when the doctors are fully satisfied with the investigations they are doing they will be sending him back home," he added.

To help him breathe without difficulty, doctors last week drained excess fluid that had built up on the lining of Mandela's lungs.

Last month Mandela spent a night in hospital for a scheduled check-up and in December he was admitted for 18 days for a lung infection and gallstones surgery, his longest hospital stay since he walked free from 27 years in jail in 1990.

Mandela's latest health scare has prompted a huge outpouring of wishes and prayers, from US President Barack Obama who said he would keep the ailing "hero" in his prayers, to locals penning messages on flower-bed stones outside his Johannesburg home.

Also on Thursday, Zuma met members of the Mandela family who "expressed their gratitude for the support from South Africans and people from all over the world."

There was no indication as to when Mandela, South Africa's revered first black president, could be released from hospital.

His lung problems date back to his years in apartheid jail when he was diagnosed with early-stage tuberculosis in 1988.

He has also been treated for prostate cancer and has suffered from stomach ailments.

The latest hospitalisation has forced many South Africans to begin to come to terms with the mortality of the father of the "Rainbow Nation".

The prisoner-turned-president is idolised as the man who walked out of jail and forgave his white oppressors to steer Africa's wealthiest country into democracy.

He remains a unifying symbol in a country still riven by racial tensions and deep inequality and facing a raft of political scandals.

After leading his African National Congress to victory in the first multi-racial elections in 1994, Mandela served a single five-year term as president.

He then took up a new role as a roving elder statesman and leading campaigner against AIDS.

He retired from public life in 2004 and has not appeared in public since July 2010, when he was at the Soccer City stadium in Soweto for the World Cup final.