JOHANNESBURG -- South African officials for the first time Saturday confirmed the seriousness of Nelson Mandela's illness -- pneumonia -- as the former president prepared to spend a fourth night in a hospital.
Mandela, 94, who has a history of respiratory problems, had a pleural effusion, or fluid in or around the lungs, which had been drained, according to the president's office.
"This has resulted in him now being able to breathe without difficulty. He continues to respond to treatment and is comfortable," said presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj. His statement was the first suggesting that Mandela had experienced difficulty breathing in recent days.
Mandela, who helped lead the rebellion against apartheid rule in South Africa, is revered as a symbol of peace and reconciliation in a nation often plagued by racial divisions. He contracted tuberculosis while imprisoned for 27 years by the white minority government, and has suffered from respiratory problems since.
Earlier updates from the president's office said Mandela was in good spirits, responding well and eating breakfast.
South African authorities have played down the seriousness of Mandela's illnesses when he has been hospitalized in recent months. In December he spent nearly three weeks in a hospital, but it was only after he was out of danger that South African authorities reported that he had been treated for a severe lung infection. He also had surgery for gallstones.
Some unconfirmed news reports last week suggested that Mandela had been on a ventilator.
Since December, Mandela has been under almost constant medical supervision in his home in the northern Johannesburg suburb of Houghton. He was admitted to a hospital early this month for what the presidency described as routine tests.
Last week, President Jacob Zuma urged South Africans not to panic about the health of Mandela, known affectionately by the nickname Madiba. "The presidency wishes to acknowledge and thank all who have been praying for and sending messages of support to Madiba and his family," Maharaj said in a statement.
-- Los Angeles Times