Nelson Mandela's health: Is it time to let go?

In South Africa, former President Nelson Mandela has now been in the hospital for 12 days, battling a lung infection. The official word is his condition remains serious but stable.

South Africans show support for ailing Nelson Mandela
South Africans show support for ailing Nelson Mandela outside the hospital he is being treated at. CBS News

South Africans are having a difficult time dealing with the prospect of losing the man who led the country out of apartheid. In Soweto, outside Johannesburg, where many of the battles of South Africa's liberation struggle were fought, they've been celebrating.

Once again, they've been told the 94-year-old Mandela is rallying from a serious health crisis. Mandela's daughter, Zenani, came out from visiting the man they call Madiba with apparently good news.

"He's doing very well," she said.

But South Africans have learned that such assurances aren't always what they seem. Adam Habib, the well-connected vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, knows what is happening behind the brave face.

Nelson Mandela hospitalized with lung infection
Nelson Mandela

"I think if you speak to individuals quietly, many will tell you that he's quite close to going," he said. Nelson Mandela is revered for setting his people free.

But now, for family and political reasons, there seems to be a reluctance to set him free.

SA president: Nelson Mandela on the mend

As a recent, controversial photo session showed, Nelson Mandela still has political value. South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, was accused of trying to exploit that popularity.

Mandela's longtime bodyguard, Shaun Van Heerden, has begun to fear that the Mandela family and the government may be prolonging his boss' suffering.

Adam Habib
Adam Habib CBS News

"Are we going to get to a situation where we put Madiba on a machine to keep him alive?" he said. "For what purpose? I don't think so. Set him free."

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Habib said it's a situation the family is very likely to have faced already.

"If a hard decision has to be made about turning off the machines that may be keeping him alive, we are aware that that decision may have confronted the family last week and they struggled with that decision," he said.

And that struggle has intensified. It's been more than two days since the last public comment on Mandela's health, and there's a fear here that no news is bad news. Mandela family members are now said to be finally coming to terms on the issue; how much medical intervention for an old and sick man is enough.

  • Mark Phillips
    Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.