JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — President Jacob Zuma offered a glimmer of hope to South Africans about the faltering health of their national hero Wednesday, the anniversary of the date in 1964 when Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison.
Zuma told parliament that Mandela, who 30 years later became the country’s first black president, “is responding better to treatment from this morning.”
“On this crucial historical anniversary, our thoughts are with President Mandela and his family,” Zuma told legislators ahead of a budget vote. “We are very happy with the progress that he is now making, following a difficult last few days.”
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It was the first bit of positive news since Mandela, who turns 95 next month, was rushed from his home in Johannesburg to a Pretoria hospital in the early hours of Saturday with a recurring lung infection.
Since then, brief updates from the presidency — which controls the release of information — have repeated the line that Mandela is in “serious but stable condition,” but provided no additional details.
The private Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria remains under tight security, with Mandela receiving intensive care treatment, according to Zuma’s spokesman Mac Maharaj.
Mandela was visited at hospital throughout the day by close family members, including wife Graca Machel and eldest grandson Mandla, chief of Mvezo village where Mandela was born.
Daughter Zenani Mandela-Dlamini flew back from Argentina, where she is South Africa’s ambassador, to be at his bedside.
Mandela, known in South Africa by his Xhosa clan name “Madiba,” has been hospitalized three times since the beginning of the year. In late March he spent nine days in hospital being treated for pneumonia.
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It was on June 12, 1964, at the end of the Rivonia Trial, that Mandela and seven other anti-apartheid activists were sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage. Mandela was sent to windswept Robben Island off Cape Town, where he would be held the next 18 years in conditions that would damage his eyes and lungs.
Mandela made perhaps his most famous speech during the trial, an audio recording of which circulated on social media Wednesday, offering a vivid reminder of his powerful, prescient words.
"I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” Mandela, a lawyer by training, told the court.
“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.
“But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
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Fellow Nobel peace prize laureate the Dalai Lama told French Info radio Wednesday that he is “one of the greatest admirers” of Mandela. The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader noted that both Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, another Nobel laureate, are old and frail, and “logically they are going to go.”
“[The] important thing is their teaching, their spirit must carry,” the Dalai Lama said, adding that “I feel it is my responsibility” to carry on their legacy.
Mandela’s family, in their first public comments since he was admitted to hospital, said “it is a difficult period.”
“For the past few days since Madiba was admitted to hospital, the family has been deeply touched by the outpour of prayers and the overwhelming messages of goodwill from all South Africans and the international community.”
“The family is satisfied with the care that Madiba is receiving and share the hope of everyone for Madiba's recovery.”
Zuma said he has received messages of support for Mandela from all over the world.
“It is an honor for us as South Africans to share Madiba with the international community,” he told parliament. “We fully understand and appreciate the global interest in this world icon. We are so proud to call him our own.”