JOHANNESBURG -- Nelson Mandela's daughter Makaziwe spoke movingly of her father's continued responses to his family Thursday, saying he was "still there," trying to open his eyes when they spoke to him.
As the world waited for additional news and messages of love poured in, her words offered a poignant insight into the raw pain of his family in its bedside vigil.
"I won't lie, it doesn't look good. But as I say, if we speak to him, he responds and tries to open his eyes. He's still there," she said, in an interview with state-owned SABC television.
"But I think for us, as his children and grandchildren, we still have this hope because you know when we talk to him, he will flutter (his eyelids) trying to open his eyes and will open his eyes. When you touch him, he still responds. And I think for us as his progeny, as long as Tata is still responding when we talk to him, when we touch him, I think that gives us hope."
The twists and turns of Mandela's illness have been followed with such intensity by global media that it sometimes seems the world is at his bedside, monitoring each turn for the better or worse. But the glare has left his family uncomfortable and upset by reporting they have found intrusive, inappropriate and even racist, according to Makaziwe.
She implied that foreign journalists failed to respect the boundaries of distance and respect appropriate in African culture with the illness of a great, revered leader.
"There's sort of a racist element with many of the foreign media, where they just cross boundaries. It's truly like vultures waiting when the lion has devoured the buffalo, waiting there for the last of the carcass. That's the image we have as a family," she said angrily.
She said it was natural for people to be interested "but I just feel that it has gone overboard," and pointed out that there was no international media frenzy when former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was hospitalized. She called for the public to respect Mandela's privacy.
"If people say they really care about Nelson Mandela, then they should respect that. They should respect that there is a part of him that has to be respected," said Makaziwe, Mandela's eldest daughter.
South African President Jacob Zuma also expressed concern about media coverage and rumor, after an Australian government minister was forced to apologize for prematurely declaring that Mandela had died.
"The presidency is disturbed by the rumors that are being spread about former President Mandela's health. We appeal for respect for the privacy and dignity of the former president," Zuma said.
For many South Africans, there's a sense that outsiders can't hope to understand the situation they face as Mandela's health fades and the nation begins to confront the loss of its greatest hero.
One columnist, Alex Eliseev, wrote that just hearing that Mandela was in critical condition was painful.
"While the reality is setting in, the word critical still feels like a punch in the gut," he wrote.
Thursday saw yet another change in Mandela's condition. Zuma's spokesman, Mac Maharaj, said Mandela's health had deteriorated further in the previous 48 hours, prompting Zuma to cancel a scheduled trip to Mozambique for a regional summit.
Zuma visited the elder statesmen again on Thursday, his third visit in a week, and reported an improvement.
Mandela remained in critical condition "but is now stable" he said.
"I canceled my visit to Mozambique today so that I could see him and confer with the doctors. He is much better today than he was when I saw him last night. The medical team continues to do a sterling job. "
Zuma urged people to keep thinking of Mandela and praying for him, also referring to him as Tata, which means "father" and is used by many South Africans as a term of affection for Mandela.
"We must pray for Tata's health and wish him well. We must also continue with our work and daily activities while Madiba remains hospitalized," Zuma said.
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Mandela's African National Congress party arranged a series of prayer meetings around the country. The ANC Youth League and other ANC members gathered outside the Pretoria hospital where Mandela is being treated, and later outside his former Soweto home.
Local and international media have reported that Mandela is on life support, which South African officials have declined to confirm, saying it breaches patient-doctor confidentiality.
Despite Mandela's poor health, Zuma is preparing for the arrival of President Barack Obama late Friday.
"This is a significant visit which will take political, economic and people-to-people relations between the two countries to a higher level, while also enhancing cooperation between the U.S. and the African continent at large," Zuma said in a statement Thursday.
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