Zuma’s briefing was also an indicator of the extent to which reports on Mandela’s health sometimes overshadow the business of the state. Under questioning, Zuma said President Barack Obama would go ahead with a visit to South Africa.
“President Obama is visiting South Africa,” Zuma said. “I don’t think you stop a visit because somebody’s sick.”
Obama, who arrives in Africa this week, is due to visit Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.
White House spokesman Jay Carney wouldn’t speculate about how Mandela’s health would affect Obama’s upcoming visit, saying only that the president “continues to look forward to his trip.”
“The president obviously has long seen Nelson Mandela as one of his personal heroes, and I think he’s not alone in that in this country and around the world,” Carney said.
Zuma, who in the past has given an overly sunny view of Mandela’s health, briefly spoke of his visit Sunday night to Mandela in the hospital in the capital. That visit was mentioned in a presidential statement on the same night that said Mandela, previously described as being in serious but stable condition, had lapsed into critical condition within the previous 24 hours.
“It was late, he was already asleep,” Zuma said. “And we then had a bit of a discussion with the doctors as well as his wife, Graca Machel, and we left.”
The president said South Africans should accept that Mandela is old, and he urged people to pray for their former leader.
“Madiba is critical in the hospital, and this is the father of democracy. This is the man who fought and sacrificed his life to stay in prison, the longest-serving prisoner in South Africa,” Zuma said, using Mandela’s clan name.
Mandela, who became South Africa’s first black president after the end of apartheid in 1994, was hospitalized for what the government said was a recurring lung infection. This is his fourth hospitalization since December.
Asked why none of Mandela’s doctors had been made available for a news briefing, presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said an arrangement had been made in consultation with Mandela’s family whereby information would be provided through a “single source in an authoritative way.”
“We’ve come to that arrangement on the basis that we need to respect the privacy of the family, we need to adhere to doctor-patient confidentiality,” he said.