Nelson Mandela is in critical but stable condition, the South African government said Friday, while a close friend said the anti-apartheid leader was conscious and responsive earlier this week.
The government reiterated that Mandela is not in a vegetative state, contrary to recent court documents.
A court paper filed June 27 concerning Mandela family graves said affidavits would be provided from his physicians to show that Mandela "is in a permanent vegetative state." A later filing dropped that phrase. Both court filings, however, said that Mandela's breathing was machine assisted.
A close friend of Mandela's, Denis Goldberg, told Sky News on Friday that he visited Mandela on Monday and that Mandela was conscious and responsive to what he was saying. Goldberg also quoted from something Mandela's wife told him.
"There is no sign of a general organ collapse and therefore they do not recommend switching off the machine because there's every chance that his health will improve," Goldberg quoted wife Graca Machel as saying. "The matter has been discussed and the decision was against."
A "persistent vegetative state" is defined as the condition of patients with severe brain damage in whom coma has progressed to a state of wakefulness without detectable awareness, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.
Goldberg said the legal papers that said Mandela was "vegetative" might have been written when Mandela was in a coma or unconscious, and that perhaps Mandela then improved.
"Maybe he's recovered a bit and that's what I assume," he said. "The lawyers can say what they like. I'm telling you what I saw."
Still, Mandela's situation is grave. Another court affidavit said that "the anticipation of his impending death is based on real and substantial grounds." A South African doctor, Adri Kok, said it was unlikely that a person of Mandela's age — he is 94 — can be taken off mechanical ventilation, another word for life support, and recover.
The court filing came in a case brought by 15 Mandela family members against a Mandela grandson who had moved the remains of three Mandela children from their original burial site. A court ordered the bodies to be moved back to Mandela's hometown of Qunu.
The family feud drew a rebuke late Thursday from retired archbishop Desmond Tutu who appealed to the family of Mandela, also known by his clan name Madiba, to overcome their differences.
"Please, please, please may we think not only of ourselves. It's almost like spitting in Madiba's face," Tutu said in a statement released by his foundation. "Your anguish, now, is the nation's anguish — and the world's. We want to embrace you, to support you, to shine our love for Madiba through you. Please may we not besmirch his name."
The leader of South Africa's anti-apartheid movement, Mandela spent 27 years in prison during white racist rule. He was freed in 1990 and became South Africa's first black president in 1994.