JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Former South African President Nelson Mandela was whisked home Friday from a hospital where the 92-year-old had been treated for a respiratory infection, with only a glimpse of his head covered by a surgical cap visible as he was wheeled into an ambulance.
That brief view could symbolize Mandela's increasing disengagement from public life. South Africans expressed joy Friday that he is recovering but there was also wistful realization that an icon is fading. Officials said Mandela now would be cared for in hospital-like conditions at home.
"Everyone was holding their hearts and saying not now," said Patricia Ramaila, who has lived across the street from Mandela for four years. "A person like Mr. Mandela — we still need him."
Mandela, who became South Africa's first black president after serving 27 years in prison for his fight against racist rule, largely retired from public life in 2004. He has made even fewer appearances in recent years while others like retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu have increasingly taken on the role of South Africa's national conscience.
Army Surgeon-General Vejaynand Ramlakan said Friday that Mandela's condition was stable, and that he takes medication for a chronic, unnamed condition and needs help to walk. Officials said he was joking with his wife and nurses, and in good spirits.
"Despite all of this, his amazing positive attitude allows him to cope with the difficulties of old age with the greatest of grace," Ramlakan said.
Mandela himself has pushed his fellow South Africans to think beyond him. At his insistence, his foundation switched from a logo featuring his face to one featuring his hands, reflecting his desire to shift the focus from himself.
When he reached 91, his July 18 birthday was declared Mandela Day, and he urged people to observe it by painting schools, reading to the elderly and taking on other tasks to build their communities.
"It is in your hands to create a better world for all who live in it," Mandela said then.
A dearth of updates since Mandela was admitted Wednesday afternoon had led to speculation and concern about his condition. Journalists camped outside the hospital and his Johannesburg home. Officials said Friday that Mandela's office has received more than 10,000 messages of support and well wishes, including from U.S. President Barack Obama.
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