JOHANNESBURG - Former South African President Nelson Mandela went home from the hospital Friday after suffering an acute respiratory infection. Officials said the 92-year-old was joking with his wife and nurses, and handling the difficulties of old age "with the greatest of grace."
Surgeon-General Vejaynand Ramlakan told reporters that the anti-apartheid icon would now receive care at home after about 48 hours in Johannesburg's Milpark Hospital.
"Dr. Mandela is in high spirits and has been visited by his family and friends," Ramlakan said. "Medically, at present, there is no need to panic."
"It comes to us this afternoon with great joy to hear that he's been discharged," grandson Mandla Mandela told reporters at a hospital news conference that included Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.
Soon afterward, a convoy of security vehicles and a military ambulance carrying Mandela left the hospital, reaching his nearby home in minutes. Neighbors were happy to have him back.
"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."
Another neighbor, Gillian Jacklin, said when Mandela first moved into the leafy neighborhood, the former president knocked on her door to introduce himself. "But he doesn't go out very much anymore," she said.
"He's become the father of South Africa what happens when he goes and his message is no longer important?" she said.
Mandela undergoes regular hospital checkups, but his latest visit has stretched into an unusually long stay.
A dearth of updates since Mandela was admitted Wednesday afternoon had led to speculation and concern about his condition. Journalists have been camped outside the hospital and outside his Johannesburg home. Officials said Friday that Mandela's office has received more than 10,000 messages of support and well wishes, including from President Barack Obama.
Motlanthe, who is acting president while President Jacob Zuma is traveling abroad, said in retrospect communications should have been better.
"Madiba has received similar checkups in the past and it's never raised the same public panic it has now," Motlanthe said, explaining why officials had not been prepared. South Africans affectionately call the 92-year-old Madiba, his clan's name.
Ramlakan, the surgeon general, said Mandela was in stable condition and had not been on a respirator.
Mandela also had a respiratory infection eight years ago and contracted tuberculosis in 1988 while in prison, Ramlakan said. He added Mandela takes medication for a chronic, unnamed condition, and needs help to walk.
"Despite all of this, his amazing positive attitude allows him to cope with the difficulties of old age with the greatest of grace," said Ramlakan, who is the South African army's top doctor. The army is charged with the care of former presidents in South Africa.
Ramlakan would not say whether Mandela's most recent infection was in the upper or lower regions of his respiratory tract. A lower tract infection could have signaled more serious problems than an upper respiratory problem.
"We are at the end of the day talking about somebody who is 92 years old," Ramlakan said. "When you are 92 years old, what is routine is very different from when you are 19."
Motlanthe said Mandela was joking with his wife and nurses before being released Friday.
Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in prison for his fight against apartheid. He became South Africa's first black president in 1994 and stepped down after serving one term in 1999. He largely retired from public life in 2004.
The public has seen only glimpses of him recently, such as in November, when his office released photos of a private meeting between Mandela and members of the U.S. and South African soccer teams. The teams had just played a match in his honor.
Mandela also appeared at the closing ceremony of the World Cup in July, waving to the crowd as he was driven in a small golf cart alongside his wife, Graca Machel.
Mandela's ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, had visited him in the hospital Thursday but refused to comment on his condition when she attended a court hearing Friday.
Madikizela-Mandela appeared relaxed at the court, which postponed the hearing for a man accused of homicide and drunk driving in a June car crash that killed Mandela's great-granddaughter Zenani, 13, as she was headed home after a World Cup concert.
Officials said Friday that Mandela's office has received more than 10,000 messages of support and well wishes, including from President Barack Obama.
The Catholic Bishops of Southern Africa organization said in a statement Friday its members were praying for Mandela's speedy recovery.
Mandela "is an example of the virtues of a truly great and loving father, who cares for all near and dear to him," the bishops said.
"To the nation, he is a great and inspiring leader .... To the international community, he is a unique African and global statesman who rose above personal, tribal, race and party interests in order to lead the South African nation through a difficult transition from apartheid to democracy."
Mandela's African National Congress, the party that has governed South Africa since he led it to its first election victory in 1994, thanked his medical team in a statement Friday.
"We thank the entire South Africa community and the international community for their prayers and well wishes to Madiba for his speedy recovery," the ANC added.