Nelson Mandela is on a life-support machine to help him breathe, reports said on Wednesday, as President Jacob Zuma cancelled a scheduled trip to Mozambique after a late-night visit to the hospital room of the anti-apartheid hero.
The 94-year-old founding father of South African democracy has been in critical condition in a Pretoria hospital since Sunday. In official communications, his condition was consistently described as serious but stable since his hospitalization 19 days ago for a lung infection. In the past few days, however, his condition has deteriorated from serious to critical.
Family members and clan elders have been gathering since Tuesday to discuss Mr. Mandela's health. The family could now face an agonizing decision over how long to continue the life support – a difficult dilemma for a family that has been badly divided on other issues in the past.
"He is using machines to breathe," clan elder Napilisi Mandela told the AFP news agency on Wednesday after visiting Mr. Mandela in hospital. "It is bad, but what can we do."
Mr. Zuma visited Mr. Mandela at about 10 p.m. on Wednesday, his second late-night visit to the former president since Sunday. He said he found Mr. Mandela still in critical condition and decided to cancel a planned trip to neighbouring Mozambique, where he was to attend a regional summit.
Mr. Zuma's office said he was briefed by Mr. Mandela's doctors, and the doctors "are still doing everything they can to ensure his well-being."
There was no official response to the growing reports that Mr. Mandela is on life support. The news was first broken by The Citizen, a South African newspaper, which said Mr. Mandela is breathing with the assistance of a life-support ventilator and is undergoing renal dialysis. The information was confirmed by five sources, including two who had recently visited him in his Pretoria hospital ward, the newspaper said.
Mandela clan elders travelled to his Pretoria hospital Wednesday after a family meeting to discuss his deteriorating condition. The family meeting in Qunu, Mr. Mandela's childhood home and the site of his part-time residence, was apparently called to give a medical briefing to family elders and other relatives who could not visit him in Pretoria.
But several South African newspapers said the meeting was marred by disagreements over where to bury Mr. Mandela and other family members. Three of his children's graves were reportedly moved from Qunu in 2011 to his birthplace, the nearby village of Mvezo, where the village chief is his grandson, Mandla Mandela.
For years, the government was outraged by any discussion of Mr. Mandela's death or funeral arrangements, seeing it as a breach of cultural taboos. But at a media briefing this week, presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj did not express any surprise or anger when he was asked about a Mandela funeral. It was an indication of how the South African public mood is shifting toward a greater acceptance of his looming death.
The Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, prayed for a "peaceful, perfect, end" for Mr. Mandela in a prayer at his hospital bedside on Tuesday.
Some of Mr. Mandela's friends and political comrades have suggested that it is time to "let him go." And a South African civil-society organization, the Hola Bon Renaissance Foundation, called on the country to respect Mr. Mandela's wishes, noting that he had said in 1994: "Death is something inevitable."