The former South African president was hospitalized over the weekend for a recurrent lung infection after "his condition deteriorated," a spokesman said. NBC's Keir Simmons reports.
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Hope was shifting to resignation about Nelson Mandela's frail health Monday as the anti-apartheid hero remained in hospital with a lung infection for a third day.
F. Brinley Bruton / NBC News
"We still love him so much, but it is difficult," said Thembeni Sibeko, who works as a greeter at Regina Mundi, a Catholic church where opponents of the apartheid regime gathered. "It is so painful to see an old man (be in) pain every day."
Officials described the 94-year-old's condition as "serious, but stable" when he was brought to hospital on Saturday. That marked the first time the term "serious" had been used despite Mandela's numerous health scares.
The tone of the conversation in South Africa has changed with Mandela’s frequent hospital visits forcing the subject of his eventual death into the public. For many years it was considered taboo to even discuss his mortality. Now people are speaking about it openly.
A long-time comrade of Mandela’s, who was fellow inmate on Robben Island, was quoted Sunday as calling on family members to let him go.
“We wish Madiba a speedy recovery, but I think what is important is that his family must release him,” Andrew Mlangeni told the Sunday Times newspaper. “You [Madiba] have been coming to the hospital too many times. Quite clearly you are not well and there is a possibility you might not be well again.
View images of civil rights leader Nelson Mandela, who went from anti-apartheid activist to prisoner to South Africa's first black president.
Mlangeni added: "The family must release him so that God may have his own way. They must release him spiritually and put their faith in the hands of God. Once the family releases him, the people of south Africa will follow. We will say thank you, God, you have given us this man, and we will release him to you.”
The Star newspaper reported Monday that three unnamed government sources had called Mandela’s condition “scary.”
"President Jacob Zuma reiterates his call for South Africa to pray for Madiba and the family during this time,” an official government statement released on Monday said. Mandela is often affectionately referred to by his clan name Madiba.
Mandela's lungs have been weak since suffering tuberculosis while a political prisoner for 27 years under the apartheid regime. After he was released in 1990, he took his fight for racial equality right to the presidency, toppling the minority white leadership and becoming South Africa's first black president.
F. Brinley Bruton / NBC News
That he was able to help navigate the country through the time of monumental change without sparking a bloodbath as many predicted won him the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize and made him a hero around the world.
Indeed, Pauline Mafereka said she prayed that Mandela would live to see his 100th birthday.
"I wish for him that he reaches 100 years," the 62-year-old said. "But I think five years is too long."
Salomon Buthelezi, 33, a photographer in Soweto who said he knew Mandela as a child, wished the democracy icon a speedy recovery.
"My wish is that he get healthy, of course," Buthelezi added. "But if it is God's will, he should go."
This story was originally published on Mon Jun 10, 2013 7:51 AM EDT