South Africans await word on Mandela's health

JON GAMBRELL Associated Press Published:

JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- South Africans prayed Sunday for the health of former President Nelson Mandela and anxiously awaited further word about the anti-apartheid leader after he was admitted to a military hospital.

On Sunday morning, worshipers gathered at the Regina Mundi Catholic church in the Soweto area of Johannesburg to pray for the frail 94-year-old icon. The church was a center of anti-apartheid protests and funerals.

"Yes, it really worries us because he is a great person," church goer Shainet Mnkomo said as she left an early morning service. "He did so many things to the country, he's one of those persons who we remember most."

Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison for fighting racist white rule, became South Africa's first black president in 1994 and served one five-year term. He later retired from public life to live in his remote village of Qunu, in the Eastern Cape area, and last made a public appearance when his country hosted the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament.

Many in this country of 50 million people view Mandela, who led the African National Congress into power, as a father figure and an icon of integrity and magnanimity amid the nation's increasingly messy politics. Inside the church, a stained glass window depicts Mandela, in a dark suit and blue tie, raising his hands to wave at a crowd. His image stands just next to another portraying a man carrying the corpse 13-year-old, Hector Pieterson, who was gunned down by police in the black township of Soweto in June, 1976, as students protested peacefully against the white government.

A statement Saturday from President Jacob Zuma's office said Mandela was doing well after being hospitalized for tests and was receiving medical care "which is consistent for his age." It did not say what those tests were for.

In February, Mandela spent a night in a hospital for a minor diagnostic surgery to determine the cause of an abdominal complaint. In January 2011, however, Mandela was admitted to a Johannesburg hospital for what officials initially described as tests but what turned out to be an acute respiratory infection. He was discharged days later.

Mandela contracted tuberculosis during his years in prison. He also had surgery for an enlarged prostate gland in 1985.

While Zuma's statement offered no further details about who would provide medical attention for Mandela, the nation's military has taken over medical care for the aging leader since the 2011 respiratory infection. At 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria on Saturday night, the facility that previously cared for Mandela in February, everything appeared calm, without any additional security present. On Sunday morning, soldiers set up a checkpoint to search vehicles heading into the hospital's grounds.

Mandela's hospitalization comes after the crash Thursday of a military aircraft flying on an unknown mission near Mandela's rural home in which all 11 onboard were killed. The plane was flying to a military air base in Mthatha, which is about 30 kilometers (17 miles) north of Qunu. Military officials declined to say whether those on board had any part in caring for Mandela

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.