Mandela's health improving, continues treatment

JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - Nelson Mandela's condition has improved and he continues to receive treatment for a recurrence of pneumonia, the South African presidency said on Sunday, as the anti-apartheid icon spent a fifth night in hospital.

Doctors "have reported a further improvement in his condition," President Jacob Zuma's office said.

The frail 94-year-old "had a restful day and continues to receive treatment."

South Africa's first black president, one of the towering figures of modern history, was admitted late Wednesday for his third hospitalisation in four months.

Doctors drained a build-up of fluid, known as a pleural effusion or "water on the lungs", that had developed from the lung infection.

That procedure helped the nonagenarian breathe "without difficulty", Mr Zuma's office said on Saturday.

It was unclear how long Mr Mandela would remain hospitalised. Last year he had an 18-day hospital stint in December.

Mr Mandela's recent health troubles saw an outpouring of prayers as Christians celebrated Easter Sunday, but have also seen South Africans come to terms with the mortality of the revered Nobel Peace laureate.

"Yes, we are concerned that he is ailing, and he is getting worse, naturally we should be concerned," Father Sebastian Rossouw told worshippers at the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto township, once a pivotal centre in the struggle against apartheid.

"I think this is the question in the back of many of our minds, when is the end? Is he going to die? "We should rather celebrate what he stood for, and what he continues to stand for, that he has been an icon of peace, an icon of service."

At home and abroad, the former president is idolised and revered as the architect of South Africa's peaceful transition from white-ruled police state to hope-filled democracy.

Nearly 20 years after he came to power in 1994, Mr Mandela remains a unifying symbol in a country still riven by racial tensions and deep inequality.

It is the second time that Mr Mandela has been hospitalised in weeks, after spending a night for check-ups on March 9.

That followed a nearly three-week hospital stay in December for another lung infection and gallstone surgery, his longest since he walked free from jail in 1990.

He was diagnosed with early-stage tuberculosis in 1988 during his 27-year jail term and has long had problems with his lungs.

He has also had treatment for prostate cancer and has suffered stomach ailments.

Pleural effusion is the accumulation of water between the lining covering the lung and that of the chest wall, experts say.

Having the fluid tapped was normally a minor procedure, but other cases required the fluid to be chemically broken down if it had formed pockets, according to Keertan Dheda, professor of respiratory medicine at the University of Cape Town. A minor operation would be carried out if infected.

But with age "the longer pneumonia takes to get better," and "a bit more complicated the older you get," said Prof Dheda.

French pulmonologist Jean-Christophe Renaud said Mr Mandela had a good constitution and could recover well.

Renowned lawyer and Mr Mandela's friend George Bizos was confident Mr Mandela would pull through the latest bout of illness.

"I know he has come out of quite serious illnesses before," Mr Bizos told Eye Witness News.

While Mr Mandela's legacy continues to loom large, he has long since exited the political stage and for the country's youthful population he is a figure from another era who served as president for just one term.

He has not appeared in public since July 2010 when he was at the Soccer City stadium in Soweto for the World Cup final match.

Labour unrest, high-profile crimes, grinding poverty and corruption scandals have effectively ended the honeymoon enjoyed after Mandela ushered in the "Rainbow Nation". But his decades-long struggle against apartheid still resonates.

Meantime President Zuma has expressed appreciation for the prayers being offered for Mr Mandela.

Mr Mandela's granddaughter Ndileka, who attended one of the prayer sessions in Midvaal, a municipality on the outskirts of Johannesburg, said the prayers are strengthening.

"I feel fortified and strong," she said.

The African Union chief, South Africa's former minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, also wished Mr Mandela "all the best".