South Africans heaved a sigh of relief after their beloved 92-year-old former president Nelson Mandela was discharged Friday from a hospital and returned home after being treated for a respiratory infection.
Mandela, who served as the country’s first democratically elected president from 1994 to 1999, was driven home about lunchtime in a military ambulance. Doctors at Milpark Hospital, near Mandela’s home in Houghton, a leafy Johannesburg suburb, had announced earlier that he had suffered an acute respiratory infection but was recovering well.
News of the acute illness contradicted reports from the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the ruling African National Congress that nothing serious was wrong with Mandela, known affectionately by South Africans by his clan name, Madiba.
Mandela, who became president after spending 27 years in prison for anti-apartheid activism, is rarely seen in public because of his age and frailty, but has enormous stature, being loved by South Africans of all races. His health is regarded almost as public property. He is frequently referred to as a living icon and is the African continent’s most inspiring political leader.
The foundation had announced Wednesday that he was having routine tests and then declined to make any further statements Thursday, fueling a day of wild rumors, including that the former president was dying or dead — the second whirl of such speculation within a few weeks.
Acting President Kgalema Motlanthe, who visited Mandela on Friday morning before a news conference, said Mandela was sitting up in bed and teasing his wife, Graca Machel, and nurses.
“When I walked in, his exact words [were that] he was very happy to see me,” Motlanthe said, adding that Mandela had urged him to attend the news conference to inform the nation of his health. “He’s in good spirits.”
The South African military’s surgeon general, Vejaynand Ramlakan, said Mandela would get the same medical treatment at home that he would have received in the hospital, and paid tribute to his positive attitude about the ailments of age.
“He is stable but subject to intense monitoring,” Ramlakan said. “For a 92-year-old, he surprises us on a daily basis.”
Motlanthe said Mandela had received more than 10,000 messages from well-wishers while he was in the hospital.
As South African editors called for more openness about Mandela’s health, Motlanthe acknowledged that the issue had been poorly handled and said that in the future the South African presidency would take charge of it. But a statement Thursday from President Jacob Zuma, who was in the Swiss resort of Davos for the World Economic Forum, merely stated that Mandela was comfortable and in good hands.
As Mandela’s ambulance drove him home, a group of children from a nearby school sang the national anthem and held placards wishing him good health.
Nic Dawes, editor of the South African weekly the Mail & Guardian, wrote Friday that the response to Mandela’s hospitalization showed how much his presence remained a powerful part of South Africa’s identity.
“What South Africans feel for Madiba is not simply affection or respect. Even love may not be a strong enough word,” Dawes wrote. “His presence is part of the structure of our national being. We worry that we may not be quite ourselves without him.”