JOHANNESBURG—Anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela is on life support, unable to breathe on his own, an elder in the South African icon’s clan said Wednesday, all but extinguishing hopes for his recovery.
“Yes, he is using machines to breathe,” Napilisi Mandela told AFP after visiting the much-loved 94-year-old’s bedside. “It is bad, but what can we do.”
Just how bad becomes clearer by the hour. President Jacob Zuma late Wednesday abruptly canceled a visit planned to neighboring Mozambique after visiting Mandela’s Pretoria hospital.
It is the first time Zuma has scrapped an engagement since Mandela was hospitalized nearly three weeks ago.
Zuma canceled the trip scheduled for Thursday after he “found him to be still in a critical condition,” a statement from the presidency said.
“President Zuma was briefed by the doctors who are still doing everything they can to ensure his well-being.”
Zuma had been expected to attend a regional investment conference.
Another Mandela family member who asked not to be named,also confirmed the former political prisoner, who was hospitalized on June 8 with a stubborn lung problem, was on life support.
Emotional crowds gathered outside the Pretoria hospital where he is being treated as relatives and clan elders made preparations for the revered former South African leader’s final journey.
Supporters sang hymns for the father of South African democracy and architect of remarkable transition from almost half a century of white minority rule to landmark multiracial elections.
‘Peaceful, perfect end’
A candlelight vigil was held and on Tuesday a prayer read out by a South African archbishop to wish the Nobel Peace laureate a “peaceful, perfect end.”
“We have been so united—blacks and whites together. That’s the thought of Mandela in us,” said Lerato Boulares, 35.
With his life seemingly slipping away, messages of support for the anti-apartheid hero blanketed a wall outside the hospital, including a poster bearing one of his most memorable quotes: “It only seems impossible until it’s done.”
Mandela’s lung troubles date from his 27 years locked up on the notorious Robben Island and in other apartheid prisons.
Elders from Mandela’s Thembu clan visited the country’s first black president as his “Rainbow Nation” comes to terms with the increasing frailty of the man fondly known by his clan name Madiba.
A traditional chief, who is also distant nephew of the former statesman, chief Mfundo Mtirara, confirmed to AFP he visited Mandela on Wednesday, but refused to give details.
The elders want to “discuss what should be done,” an unnamed local chief told local daily The Times, alluding to disagreement among family members over his burial site.
A row reportedly broke out between family members Tuesday over whether to move the graves of Mandela’s three children to his childhood village where he is expected to be laid to rest, with grandson Mandla Mandela said to have stormed out of the meeting in anger.
Cape Town Archbishop Thabo Makgoba visited Pretoria’s Mediclinic Heart Hospital late Tuesday to pray with wife, Graca Machel, “at this hard time of watching and waiting.”
“Grant Madiba eternal healing and relief from pain and suffering,” the prayer said. “Grant him, we pray…a peaceful, perfect end.”
A makeshift campsite has sprung up in front of the hospital as international television crews descend on South Africa awaiting word on Mandela’s health, competing with his supporters for space on the pavement.
School children brought a poster they had drawn with the words “We love u Tata (father).”
Life ‘dedicated to humanity’
Zuma said that Mandela had spent his life “in dedication to humanity.”
Zuma led delegates at a union conference in a rousing song that evokes Mandela’s role as a moral compass and leader of the struggle for freedom.
Meanwhile, messages of goodwill flooded in from overseas.
In only her fifth ever tweet, Hillary Clinton offered “love and prayers to our great friend, Madiba, his family and his nation during this difficult time.”
The White House has also sent its wishes but could not yet say whether his ill health would affect a planned visit by US President Barack Obama to South Africa from Friday as part of a tour of Africa.
Mandela’s fragile state of health has sparked speculation that the tour could be halted, or radically changed, if the anti-apartheid icon passes away in the hours before Obama leaves, or while he is on the continent.
South Africa’s foreign minister Maite Nkoana Mashabane said that while Obama would have loved to see Mandela, a meeting with the former South African leader would be impossible.
Mandela—whose 95th birthday is on July 18— has been hospitalized four times since December, mostly for a recurring lung infection dating back to his time in jail for sabotage against the apartheid government.
Once branded a terrorist
The world watched as the man once branded a terrorist by the United States and Britain raised his fist as he walked free from prison near Cape Town in 1990.
Mandela went on to negotiate an end to white minority rule and won South Africa’s first fully democratic elections in 1994.
He forged a path of racial reconciliation during his single term as president, before taking up a new role as a roving elder statesman and leading AIDS campaigner.
He stepped back from public life in 2004 and has not been seen in public since the football World Cup finals in South Africa in 2010.
With his health now fading, Mandela’s supporters are starting to show signs of resignation—while preparing to celebrate his legacy.
“He’s now (nearly) 95 years old so we don’t have to worry about him,’ 40-year-old Jauffre Basube said. “I think he’s done what he’s supposed to do.”—Susan Njanji