Revelations of an ambulance breakdown that left an ailing Nelson Mandela stranded on a highway have sparked a furor in South Africa, with the opposition demanding an investigation into the debacle.
Mr. Mandela slipped into critical condition on Sunday night after 16 days in hospital for a recurring lung infection, officials said.
The government has confirmed that a military ambulance carrying Mr. Mandela had engine problems and was stuck on a highway in the pre-dawn hours of June 8 as it tried to bring him to a Pretoria hospital after he reportedly suffered cardiac arrest.
The 94-year-old anti-apartheid hero was kept alive by medical staff and transferred on a stretcher to another military ambulance after the roadside delay of about 40 minutes on the highway between Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Officials insisted that Mr. Mandela "suffered no harm" as a result of the ambulance breakdown. "All care was taken to ensure that the former president Mandela's medical condition was not compromised by the unforeseen incident," said a statement by the office of President Jacob Zuma. The statement also denied the media reports that Mr. Mandela had suffered cardiac arrest on June 8.
But the reassurances did not placate South Africans, who reacted with dismay and anger on social media on Sunday as local newspapers reported new details of the ambulance fiasco.
"Mandela's night of horror," blared a headline in one leading newspaper, City Press, on Sunday.
Mr. Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, was in the ambulance with him and was "frantic" after the engine breakdown, the newspaper said. It quoted cardiologists as saying that the delay could have jeopardized Mr. Mandela's health.
A report in another South African newspaper noted that the weather was cold and windy as Mr. Mandela was being transferred between ambulances at around 1:30 a.m., and it questioned whether this could have affected his health, since he is suffering from a recurring lung infection.
The opposition Democratic Alliance called for an official inquiry into the incident. "The fact is that the South African Military Health Service let the country down," said a statement by DA parliamentarian David Maynier. "What happened is symptomatic of the poor state of the South African Military Health Service."
He quoted a defence commission report in 2010 that cited "serious problems" in health services in the military, including a shortage of doctors and ambulances and inadequate equipment. The country has to be "absolutely sure" that the ambulance problems will not pose any "future risk" to Mr. Mandela's health, he said.