Johannesburg, Feb 25: Former South African President Nelson Mandela was hospitalized Saturday with an undisclosed stomach ailment, prompting concern about the health of the much beloved 93-year-old icon.
Mandela's African National Congress, South Africa's governing party, said his hospital visit was not an emergency and that Mandela was in good health.
Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison for fighting racist white rule, has officially retired and last appeared in public in July 2010. The Nobel peace laureate became South Africa's first black president in 1994 and served one five-year term.
Mandela “has had a long-standing abdominal complaint and doctors feel it needs proper specialist medical attention,” President Jacob Zuma said, asking that Mandela's privacy be respected.
Zuma's statement did not say at which hospital Mandela was being treated, apparently to protect his privacy, but that did not stop journalists from camping out at a military hospital in the capital, Pretoria, on the chance he might be there. In 2011, Mandela spent a few days in a private Johannesburg hospital with an acute respiratory infection.
Mac Maharaj, Zuma's spokesman, said he could not immediately elaborate but that he would be issuing regular updates. The South African military, which took charge of Mandela's health care after he was hospitalized last year, and a spokesman for Mandela's office said they would have no statement Saturday.
ANC spokesman Keith Khoza said Zuma's office had reassured ANC officials.
Mandela “just had abdominal pains for some time now and the doctors decided a while ago that perhaps they should admit him, with a view to check those abdominal pains, so it wasn't an emergency admission,” Khoza told reporters. “He's fine, he's in good health.”
Well-wishers like Derek Kemper, a 47-year-old emergency services consultant, said they hoped Mandela would soon recover.
Kemper said he fought the ANC as a soldier for the apartheid state. On Saturday, Kemper was touring Soweto, the famed Johannesburg township set aside for blacks under apartheid and still largely black and poor, with a group of other whites. Kemper marveled at how far the country had come, and credited Mandela.
“He had the wisdom to try to reunite the country.” Kemper said, speaking in front of a Soweto home where Mandela once lived that has been turned into a museum celebrating Mandela's life.
Kemper said he believed that even though Mandela has largely retired from public life, he has a moderating influence on younger black South Africans who may be impatient with the pace of change in a country where the black majority remains poor. Kemper said he worried about whether the commitment to reconciliation would outlive Mandela.
But Kefiloe Molepo, a 19-year-old student who grew up just around the corner from Mandela's home, said there was little cause for concern. Molepo, walking home from church, said he was raised on stories about Mandela, who he said was a friend of his great-grandfather.
“When he was set free, he didn't think of vengeance,” Molepo said. “He wanted peace for the nation.”
In 1993, after white extremists killed Chris Hani, a black leader who at the time was second only to Mandela in popularity, Mandela went on national television to call for calm.
Mandela wrote later that he was among those who feared Hani's death would spark a race war, and his measured words were credited with averting further violence.
Today, white extremists have been largely sidelined. And black militants like Julius Malema, head of the ANC's youth wing, grab headlines but struggle to draw crowds.
Christian Bohm, a 32-year-old Swedish telecommunications company employee who was visiting the Mandela museum Saturday, said Mandela had set an example for the world for how leaders can pursue justice.
“South Africa is very privileged to have had such a leader,” said Bohm, comparing Mandela to India's Mahatma Gandhi.
Hassan Burma was visiting Soweto from South Sudan, Africa's newest nation.
South Sudan broke away from Sudan last year, and its leaders must now cope with the devastation of decades of civil war. Burma said Mandela has shown Africa has different possibilities.
“What he did wasn't just for South Africa,” Burma said. “It is for all the African nations.”
Mandela's public appearances have become increasingly rare, though he did appear at the closing ceremony of the World Cup in July 2010. Mandela also held a private meeting with Michelle Obama when the U.S. first lady traveled to South Africa with her daughters last year.
Mandela has taken up permanent residence at his home in Qunu, in the southwestern region of South Africa where he was raised. Earlier this year, Mandela came to his Johannesburg home for what Zuma's office said would be a brief stay while maintenance was done at his Qunu home. Zuma's office said then that Mandela was in good health.
Mandela's last surviving sibling, a sister, died last month near Qunu. Makhulu Nothusile Bhulehluthi was 82. Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, their father, had several wives and 31 children.