JOHANNESBURG Former South African president Nelson Mandela remained in a critical condition in hospital on Tuesday after being admitted more than two weeks ago with a lung infection, the government said.
President Jacob Zuma's office said doctors were doing their best to ensure the "recovery, well-being and comfort" of the 94-year-old anti-apartheid leader, who became South Africa's first black leader in historic all-race elections in 1994.
Madiba, as he is affectionately known, is revered among most of South Africa's 53 million people as the architect of the transition to multi-racial democracy after three centuries of white domination.
However, his latest hospitalization - his fourth in six months - has reinforced a realization that the father of the post-apartheid "Rainbow Nation" will not be around forever.
A deterioration in Mandela's health this weekend to 'critical' from 'serious but stable' has caused a perceptible switch in the national mood, from prayers for his recovery to preparations for a fond farewell.
"It would be selfish of us to expect him to live forever," said 29-year-old Cape Town chef Andisiwe Matiwane. "We need to be mature emotionally and just let nature take its course. We would love for him to be here forever, but it is impossible."
U.S. President Barack Obama is due to visit South Africa this week as part of a three-country Africa tour. Zuma said on Monday Mandela's worsening health would not affect the trip.
As preparations for Obama's visit stepped up in Pretoria, where Mandela is in hospital, senior members of his family met in his ancestral home in the village of Qunu, 700 km (450 miles) south of Johannesburg in the remote Eastern Cape province.
The Sowetan newspaper said the meeting, called by Mandela's eldest daughter, Makaziwe, was intended to convened to discuss "sensitive family matters" although it did not disclose further details.
Mandela stepped down in 1999 after one five-year term in office. Since then he has divided his time in retirement between Qunu and his home in the wealthy Johannesburg suburb of Houghton.
His last public appearance was waving to fans from the back of a golf cart before the final of the soccer World Cup in Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium in July 2010.
The public's last glimpse of him was a brief clip aired by state television in April during a visit to his home by Zuma and other senior officials from the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
At the time, the 101-year-old liberation movement, which led the fight against white-minority rule, assured the public Mandela was "in good shape", although the footage showed a thin and frail old man sitting expressionless in an armchair.
(Reporting by Ed Cropley and Wendell Roelf; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Angus MacSwan)