Updated 2:30 a.m. ET July 18, 2013
WASHINGTON President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama say the world can honor Nelson Mandela by heeding his example and serving others.
The Obamas are sending their wishes and prayers to the former South African leader on his 95th birthday.
Mandela is critically ill in a South African hospital. But South African President Jacob Zuma issued a statement Thursday saying, "Doctors have confirmed that his health is steadily improving."
Zuma went on to wish the founding father of his nation and its first president a happy birthday, saying, "On behalf of government and all the people of South Africa, we wish Madiba a joyous 95th birthday. We are proud to call this international icon our own as South Africans and wish him good health. We thank all our people for supporting Madiba throughout the hospitalisation with undying love and compassion. We also thank all for responding to the call to give Madiba the biggest birthday celebration ever this year."
The Obamas met with Mandela's family last month while in South Africa and visited Robben Island, where the anti-apartheid figure spent 18 years as a political prisoner
The president and first lady say they were deeply moved by the visit to the prison. They say they will forever draw strength and inspiration from Mandela's example, They say his commitment to equality, dignity and reconciliation should be a beacon for future generations.