JOHANNESBURG — Nelson Mandela is responding better to treatment, South African President Jacob Zuma said Wednesday as the frail anti-apartheid hero spent a fifth day in hospital.
His family said they were "deeply touched" by the outpouring of support from around the world for the 94-year-old Mandela since he was admitted to a private clinic in Pretoria on Saturday with a recurring lung infection.
"I am happy to report that Madiba is responding better to treatment from this morning," Zuma told parliament, using the Mandela's clan name.
His announcement was greeted with loud cheers from lawmakers, who, like millions of South Africans, have been on edge over Mandela's latest health scare.
Until now, the government had described his condition as "serious but stable."
Mandela's latest illness has led to a growing acceptance that the Nobel peace laureate may be nearing the end of his life, but Zuma's announcement was greeted with relief in his home village of Qunu.
"I'm happy" said 17-year-old Sibabalwe Mehlomane. "It's good news."
Members of his family, no strangers to internal feuding, have come together to be by his bedside in the Pretoria hospital.
"Since Madiba was admitted to hospital, the family has been deeply touched by the outpour(ing) of prayers and the overwhelming messages of goodwill from all South Africans and the international community," said his grandson and clan leader Mandla Mandela.
Zuma paid tribute to Mandela, who was sentenced to life in prison for sabotage 49 years ago on Wednesday, along with seven other anti-apartheid fighters.
"Because of their sacrifices and the foundation that was laid for a free and democratic South Africa, our country is a much better place to live in now than it was before 1994, even though we still have so much work to do," he said.
One of Mandela's co-accused, Andrew Mlangeni, told AFP of Mandela's resolve as they were sentenced.
"On that day Mandela accepted his fate and made it clear that he was prepared to die."
Mandela instead spent 27 years in prison during white racist rule, walking free in 1990 before becoming South Africa's first black president four years later.
A stream of family members have visited Mandela at the Mediclinic Heart Hospital, where only close relatives are being allowed access.
His current wife Graca Machel has been at his bedside almost constantly since calling off a trip to London last week to be with her ailing husband.
His eldest daughter Zenani, who is South Africa's ambassador to Argentina, was seen entering the heavily guarded clinic on Wednesday.
Zenani, as well as his two other daughters Makaziwe and Zindzi, and his ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, have visited him daily.
Outside Mandela's Johannesburg home, a group of five-year-olds delivered get-well cards for a man regarded as one of the greatest figures of the 20th century.
"We love you" read one of the cards. "Get well soon Madiba" read another.
A mother and her 16-year-old daughter also passed by the house to leave flowers.
"We want to acknowledge what he's done for this country," said the mother Pippa Allan. "It was an incredible sacrifice for him and his family and he's left us a legacy that we really hope to nourish and encourage in this country."
In Mthatha, a town near Qunu, Robert Slabbert said his death would be a "big loss for South Africa and the world."
"He's changed the whole country so he's going to be really missed," he said.
Mandela's age and his previous medical problems have only added to the sense of fatalism.
Mandela, who turns 95 next month, has a long history of lung problems since being diagnosed with early-stage tuberculosis in 1988 while in prison on Robben Island.
This is his fourth hospital stay since December. Two months ago he was discharged after treatment for pneumonia.
In December, he underwent surgery to remove gallstones as he recovered from a lung infection. Then in March he was admitted for a scheduled overnight check-up before returning to hospital later that month for 10 days.
The last images of him to be released publicly showed an unsmiling Mandela looking exceedingly frail at his Johannesburg home.
He was flanked by a smiling Zuma and other officials from the ruling ANC, prompting allegations that the embattled party was exploiting Mandela for political gain.
The ANC, facing 2014 elections, has lost much of its Mandela shine amid widespread corruption, poverty, and poor public services.
Mandela has not been seen in public since the World Cup final in South Africa in July 2010, and has not been politically active for years.
After serving just one term as president, he turned his energy to the battle against AIDS and to conflict resolution, before stepping out of the public eye at age 85.
© AFP 2013