Nelson Mandela Said To Be Gravely Ill

South Africa is on watch for the fate of the 94-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The ailing Mandela, an international icon known for his fight to end apartheid, has been in the hospital for several days. For the latest on his condition, Renee Montagne speaks with NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

South Africa's former president, Nelson Mandela, is said to be gravely ill. And his nation is on watch for the fate of the 94-year-old Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. The world is also watching. The ailing Mandela is an international icon known for his fight to end apartheid.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is outside his hospital in Pretoria and joins us. And, Ofeibea, Mandela went to the hospital two and a half weeks ago. He was very ill even when he went in. What do we know about his condition today?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: As you said that he is gravely ill. Critical is the word that is being used by the presidency and they have been issuing the bulletins, but also by Nelson Mandela's family. We can even hear what his granddaughter, Ndileka, had to say to the media when she had been to see her grandfather this morning.

NDILEKA MANDELA: We think (unintelligible) and stay with us and that we are interest as we know that he's critical but he's in a stable condition right now.

MONTAGNE: So he is, people believe, close to the end. And we can hear the crowds around you, Ofeibea, apparently there are many, many people gathered outside the hospital for the man who's seen as the father of the nation.

QUIST-ARCTON: Dozens and dozens of South Africans have gathered here. Some are singing, some are praying, all are hoping that the symbol, the father of the nation, as they call him, will pull through. But increasingly, there seems to be a resignation and reality that at going on 95, 18th of July is Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday, that Nelson Mandela may be slipping away.

So what South Africans now are saying is thank you, thank you, father. Thank you, grandfather. Thank you for bringing us hope. Thank you for uniting South Africa, for ending apartheid, for bringing equality, for making sure that all of us, black, white, colored, all the colors of the rainbow nation as he called it, that we are united and that we will live up to your legacy.

MONTAGNE: This is an unusual moment, too, because President Obama is on his way to South Africa. He's due there tomorrow, first time as president, part of a long-planned trip to Africa. How is that being perceived there at this time when it seems as if the entire nation is so focused on Nelson Mandela?

QUIST-ARCTON: First of all, South Africans said it was long overdue. Now this is a visit that has been totally overshadowed by the poor health and the declining health of Nelson Mandela. Earlier in the week, President Jacob Zuma and his foreign minister both said the trip goes ahead even though Madiba, as he's known by his clan name, even though Nelson Mandela is sick, he would want this to go ahead. But now, we're being told we'll see, it will be a decision between the two governments.

We're told that President Obama's team currently in Senegal due here tomorrow, as you said, are watching the situation. But what they're saying is that we sympathize with you, South Africa, with the Mandela family and we'll have to play it by ear, see how things go. But South Africans are focused on the health of Nelson Mandela. That is their priority and that is where their prayers and hopes are.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton speaking to us from outside the hospital where Nelson Mandela is being treated in Pretoria. Ofeibea, thanks very much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

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