JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — With Nelson Mandela still in the hospital after a second night, South Africans have been told to pray for their national hero, but also to prepare for the day he will no longer be with them.
The 94-year-old anti-apartheid leader remained in a Pretoria hospital Friday undergoing treatment for a chronic lung infection as the country began a long Easter holiday weekend.
Although his condition is said to have stabilized, his hospitalization is the third in four months as his health scares have become increasingly common.
Mac Maharaj, spokesman for President Jacob Zuma, this morning said Mandela "is in good spirits and enjoyed a full breakfast."
Doctors say the former president “is making steady progress,” but is continuing treatment and observation for a recurrence of a lung infection, Maharaj said.
Mandela, South Africa's first black president from 1994 to 1999, was taken to hospital Wednesday just before midnight after he had difficulty breathing. The hospitalization is said to have been a precautionary measure because of his age and medical history.
Zuma in a statement asked “the people of South Africa and the world to pray for our beloved Madiba,” using Mandela’s Xhosa clan name as a term of respect and endearment.
Zuma also advised people to “slow down the anxiety” about Mandela, saying South Africans “must not panic.” But he suggested they prepare for the inevitable.
“In Zulu, when someone passes away who is very old, people say he or she has gone home,” he told the BBC. “I think those are some of the things we should be thinking about.”
The African National Congress, Mandela’s party, also asked people around the world to include Mandela in their prayers.
“We are confident that the treatment will be successful as he is in professional and competent hands,” ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said. “During these trying times we wish President Mandela well and for his family to be strong.”
US President Barack Obama said that “we’re all deeply concerned” with Mandela’s health, but “hopefully he will come out of this latest challenge.”
“When you think of a single individual that embodies the kind of leadership qualities that I think we all aspire to, the first name that comes up is Nelson Mandela,” Obama said Thursday, following a meeting at the White House with African heads of state.
Although the authorities haven’t identified the hospital in which Mandela is being treated, it’s believed he’s either at the private Medi-Clinic Heart Hospital or One Military Hospital, both in Pretoria.
Mandela spent a night in the hospital for a scheduled check-up earlier this month.
In December, he stayed nearly three weeks including Christmas Day in the hospital undergoing treatment for a lung infection and gallstones, before being released to continue care at his home in Johannesburg’s upscale Houghton neighborhood.
It was Mandela’s longest hospitalization since he was freed from prison in 1990 and caused widespread concern about the central icon of the struggle against racist white minority rule.
Mandela has a history of lung problems dating back to his years working in a lime quarry as a political prisoner on Robben Island. He contracted tuberculosis during his 27 years behind bars, diagnosed in 1988 after he was moved to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town.
Although Mandela in recent years has spent much of his time in Qunu, a village in the remote Eastern Cape where he lived as a boy, he hasn’t been back since being airlifted to Pretoria for medical treatment in December.
His Johannesburg home is outfitted with medical equipment and is close to doctors and top hospitals.
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Mandela spent two nights in the hospital in January 2011with an acute respiratory infection and continued to receive treatment at home after being discharged.
Mandela was also hospitalized in February 2012 for a minor surgical procedure to determine the cause of abdominal pain.