JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - Mr Nelson Mandela is "in good spirits" and making progress as he spends a third night in hospital for a lung infection, South Africa's government said, seeking to soothe fears over the anti-apartheid hero.
Messages of concern for the ailing 94-year-old, one of the towering figures of modern history, have poured in since he was admitted to hospital late on Wednesday and President Jacob Zuma's spokesman gave an upbeat report on Friday.
"He was in good spirits, he had a full breakfast, and the doctors report that he's making steady progress," Mr Mac Maharaj told AFP.
"He sat up and had his breakfast in bed."
Mr Mandela's recent health troubles have triggered an outpouring of prayers but have also seen South Africans come to terms with the mortality of the revered Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The former president is idolised in his home nation, where he is seen as the architect of South Africa's peaceful transition from white-minority ruled police state to hope-filled democracy.
Nearly 20 years after he came to power in 1994, he remains a unifying symbol in a country still riven by racial tensions and deep inequality.
It is the second time this month that he has been admitted to hospital, after spending a night for check-ups on March 9.
That followed a nearly three-week hospital stay in December, when Mr Mandela was treated for another lung infection and underwent gallstone surgery.
He was diagnosed with early-stage tuberculosis in 1988 during his 27 years in prison under the apartheid regime and has long had problems with his lungs.
He has also had treatment for prostate cancer and suffered stomach ailments.
Mr Mandela's ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela told public broadcaster SABC that "Tata (father) is doing well".
"He's responding very well to treatment," said Ms Madikizela-Mandela, who attended a church service in Soweto where the congregation prayed for Mr Mandela.
But officials said doctors' reports of Mr Mandela's steady progress should be taken in context.
"Yes, indeed it is good news but we need to be cautious, bear in mind his age," said presidential spokesman Maharaj, who was a political prisoner with Mr Mandela at Robben Island jail off the coast of Cape Town.
While Mr Mandela's legacy continues to loom large over South African politics, he has long since exited the political stage and for the large young population he is a figure from another era, serving as president for just one term.
He has not appeared in public since South Africa's football World Cup final in 2010.
Labour unrest, high-profile crimes, grinding poverty and corruption scandals have effectively ended the honeymoon enjoyed after Mr Mandela ushered in the "Rainbow Nation" but his decades-long struggle against apartheid resonates.
Mr Ajith Deena, who lives near eastern port city Durban, said Mr Mandela is so beloved because he forgave his apartheid captors and said "Let's go forward together, let's forget the past and let's move forward as one nation, one country.'"
He will leave South Africa on "a good footing", Mr Deena said. "It will be a big loss to the country even though he's not in the public eye. It's through him that we are where we are."
The name and location of the hospital where Mr Mandela is being treated have not been disclosed to allow his medical team to focus on their work and to shield the family from the intense media interest.
In the past he has been hospitalised at a clinic in Pretoria.
Away from the public eye, Mr Mandela has grown increasingly frail.
His December hospital stay was his longest since he walked free from jail in 1990.
English Premier League football club Sunderland is calling its clash Saturday with Manchester United "Nelson Mandela Day", in honour of the club's association with Mr Mandela's charitable foundation.