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Mandela doing 'much better,' government says

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View images of civil rights leader Nelson Mandela, who went from anti-apartheid activist to prisoner to South Africa's first black president.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Former South African President Nelson Mandela is making "steady improvement" under treatment for pneumonia and doctors say he is much better now than when he was admitted to hospital a week ago, the government said on Wednesday.

The three-sentence statement from President Jacob Zuma's office was the most upbeat since the 94-year-old anti-apartheid hero was admitted to hospital with a recurrence of a lung infection.

"His doctors say he continues to respond satisfactorily to treatment and is much better now than when he was admitted to hospital on the 27th of March 2013," the statement said.

Doctors had drained excess fluid from Mandela's lungs and he was breathing without difficulty, the government said in a bulletin on Saturday.

It is the third health scare in four months for Mandela, who became South Africa's first black president in 1994 and was hailed as a global symbol of tolerance and harmony.

He was in a hospital briefly in early March for a checkup and was hospitalized in December for nearly three weeks with a lung infection after surgery to remove gallstones.

Mandela stepped down as president in 1999 and has not been politically active for a decade. But he is still revered at home and abroad for leading the struggle against apartheid rule and then championing racial reconciliation while in office.

Global figures such as U.S. President Barack Obama have sent get-well messages, and South Africans included him in Easter prayers over the weekend.

Mandela has a history of lung problems dating back to when he contracted tuberculosis as a political prisoner. He spent 27 years in prison on Robben Island and in other jails for his attempts to overthrow the white-minority government.

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