JOHANNESBURG — Members of Nelson Mandela’s family and tribal elders gathered Tuesday at the former president’s rural hometown in eastern South Africa, as concern grew for the 94-year-old leader who spent a third day in critical condition in a hospital, local media reported.
The office of President Jacob Zuma said Mandela’s condition remained unchanged after reporting late Sunday that his health had deteriorated to critical, alarming many South Africans as well as people around the world who regard the former president as a symbol of sacrifice and reconciliation.
Mandela’s family members held a meeting at his home in Qunu village in the Eastern Cape province, 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) south of Johannesburg, where the anti-apartheid leader grew up. No details on what was discussed in the meeting were announced. Those at the gathering included Mandela’s grandsons Mandla and Ndaba Mandela, according to press reports.
The Mail &Guardian, a South African newspaper, reported on its website that some elders in the area were only told of the meeting shortly before it started.
“Many of us in the village were not aware and we were only told this morning, so a number of Mandela elders still need to be transported to Qunu for the meeting,” the newspaper quoted Silumko Mandela, a relative, as saying earlier in the day.
A military helicopter was also seen hovering over the Mandela home, reported the online edition of City Press, a South African newspaper.
As on previous days, other family members were seen visiting the hospital in Pretoria where the Nobel Peace Prize laureate is being treated. South Africa’s defense minister and an Anglican archbishop also visited the facility.
Dozens of doves were released on Tuesday outside the hospital, which has attracted well-wishers who have gathered outside to leave messages of support for Mandela.
“In terms of releasing these doves, we’re simply saying it symbolizes how he has set free us as South Africans,” said Kelvin Hugo, who arrived with the birds. “He set us free in the capacity not only of social freedom or economic freedom but he’s given us an opportunity to have freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of association.”
Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison during white racist rule and became South Africa’s first black president in all-race elections in 1994, was taken to the hospital on June 8 to be treated for what the government described as a recurring lung infection. Zuma’s office said doctors were doing their best to ensure his recovery and comfort.
“We must support him and support his family,” Zuma said in a statement. “We must demonstrate our love and appreciation for his leadership during the struggle for liberation and in our first few years of freedom and democracy by living out his legacy and promoting unity, non-racialism, non-sexism and prosperity in our country.”
The president asked that the legacy of Mandela, also known by his clan name Madiba, be celebrated on July 18, his 95th birthday. In recent years, organizers have sought to turn the day into an international event in which participants do something to honor Mandela’s values for 67 minutes, noting that he spent 67 years as a human rights lawyer, a prisoner, a peacemaker and a democratically elected president.
“We must all be planning what to do next month in marking our 67 minutes of doing good for humanity as called upon by Madiba to do so, when he launched the International Mandela Day campaign,” Zuma said. “Let us make it the biggest Mandela Day ever on the 18th of July, focusing on doing good all over the country.”
South Africa’s foreign minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, said people should honor Mandela but not dwell excessively on his illness.
“We continue to wish the father of our nation well,” she said. “We are realistic about his age. We are also consciously aware of the fact that the doctors are saying he remains critical. But I am sure he would be very disappointed, if he hears that because he’s very sick, life has stopped in South Africa.”