Nelson Mandela back in hospital with lung infection

The BBC's Milton Nkosi: "South Africans are keeping him and his family in their prayers"

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Former South African President Nelson Mandela has been readmitted to hospital with the recurrence of a lung infection.

A statement from the South African presidency said Mr Mandela, 94, had been admitted just before midnight.

Mr Mandela spent 18 days in hospital in December undergoing treatment for a lung infection and gallstones.

He is widely regarded as the father of the nation for leading the struggle against apartheid.

Mr Mandela served as South Africa's first black president from 1994 to 1999. However, his health has caused concern for some time.

A presidential spokesman told the BBC that Mr Mandela was conscious and was receiving the best possible medical treatment.

"I think we need to be clear that the doctors are attending to Madiba [Mr Mandela] on a continuous basis," spokesman Mac Maharaj said.

"They prefer to act on the side of caution, and the moment they felt there was a recurrence of the lung infection, they felt that it warranted immediate hospitalisation given his age and given his history."

However, the BBC's Andrew Harding in South Africa says the abrupt nature of Mr Mandela's late-night admission is likely to raise concerns.

The presidency has not identified the hospital where he is being treated.

Appeal for prayers

The government statement said President Jacob Zuma wished Mr Mandela a speedy recovery.

Nelson Mandela: Key dates

  • 1918 Born in the Eastern Cape
  • 1943 Joins African National Congress
  • 1956 Charged with high treason, but charges dropped
  • 1962 Arrested, convicted of sabotage, sentenced to five years in prison
  • 1964 Charged again, sentenced to life
  • 1990 Freed from prison
  • 1993 Wins Nobel Peace Prize
  • 1994 Elected first black president
  • 1999 Steps down as leader
  • 2004 Retires from public life
  • 2005 Announces his son has died of an HIV/Aids-related illness

"We appeal to the people of South Africa and the world to pray for our beloved Madiba and his family and to keep them in their thoughts. We have full confidence in the medical team and know that they will do everything possible to ensure recovery," President Zuma said.

The former president is often fondly referred to by his clan name, Madiba.

The governing African National Congress also called for prayers for the former leader.

"During these trying times we wish President Mandela well and for his family to be strong," the ANC said in a statement.

"We are confident that the treatment will be successful as he is in professional and competent hands," it added.

It is the fourth time Mr Mandela has been admitted to hospital in just over two years.

He first contracted tuberculosis in the 1980s while detained on the windswept Robben Island where he served 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned for sabotage.

His lungs are said to have been damaged when he worked in a prison quarry.

Despite his long imprisonment, Mr Mandela forgave his former enemies and as president urged South Africans of all races to work together and seek reconciliation.

In 1993 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The treatment he received in December 2012 was his longest spell in hospital since leaving prison in 1990.

Earlier this month he spent a night in hospital following a check-up.

Mr Mandela retired from public life in 2004 and has been rarely seen in public since.

His main home is in Qunu, a small rural village in Eastern Cape province, where he says he spent the happiest days of his childhood.

However, doctors said in December he should remain at his home in the Johannesburg neighbourhood of Houghton to be close to medical facilities.

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