Johannesburg: Nelson Mandela is in a critical condition, South Africa's presidency has said, signalling a significant and sudden deterioration in the health of the 94-year-old anti-apartheid icon in his third week of hospitalisation for a recurrent lung infection.
"The condition of former president Nelson Mandela, who is still in hospital in Pretoria, has become critical," said presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj, 16 days after Mandela was admitted to the Mediclinic Heart Hospital for treatment of the lung infection.
President Jacob Zuma, accompanied by African National Congress Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, visited Mandela last evening.
"They were briefed by the medical team who informed them that the former President's condition had become critical over the past 24 hours," a statement from the Presidency said.
Mandela, who was admitted to the hospital on June 8 with a recurrent lung infection, was earlier said to be in a serious but stable condition.
Zuma and Ramaphosa also met Mandela's wife Graca Machel at the hospital and discussed his health condition.
"The doctors are doing everything possible to get his condition to improve and are ensuring that Madiba (Mandela's clan name) is well-looked after and is comfortable. He is in good hands," Zuma was quoted as saying in the statement.
The latest statement from the Presidency is the strongest indication yet that all is not well with the ailing elder statesman, who will turn 95 in three weeks' time.
The statement on his health came amid a mounting public outcry after it was learnt that the ambulance transporting Mandela to the hospital from his home in Johannesburg in the early hours of June 8 broke down and paramedics had to treat him for almost forty minutes before a second one arrived.
"The President and Mr Ramaphosa were assured by the doctors that when the ambulance transporting former President Mandela to hospital on the 8th of June developed engine problems, all care was taken to ensure that his medical condition was not compromised," the Presidency said, in a bid to assuage the people's concerns.
"There were seven doctors in the convoy who were in full control of the situation throughout the period. He had expert medical care. The fully equipped military ICU ambulance had a full complement of specialist medical staff including intensive care specialists and ICU nurses," Zuma said.
"The doctors also dismissed the media reports that Madiba suffered cardiac arrest. There is no truth at all in that report," he added.
Zuma also appealed to the nation and the world to pray for Madiba, the family and the medical team that is attending to him during this "difficult time".
This is the revered world leader's fourth hospitalisation since December.
Mandela has a long history of lung problems, dating back to the time when he was a political prisoner on Robben Island during apartheid. He contracted tuberculosis in 1988 during his 27 years in prison.
In December last year, he was admitted for 18 days for treatment of the lung infection and surgery to extract gallstones. It was his longest stint in hospital since his release from prison in 1990.
In March, he was admitted for an overnight scheduled check-up before returning to the hospital that month for 10-days.
Mandela has not been seen in public since the World Cup final in South Africa in July 2010.
Mandela, one of the world's tallest statesmen, led the movement to replace the apartheid regime of South Africa with a multi-racial democracy.
Mandela served as South Africa's first black president from 1994 to 1999. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.