Nelson Mandela’s condition remained critical but had improved Wednesday night, according to the South African government. Meanwhile, conflicting reports emerged about the beloved former president’s declining health:

The report that the health of the 94-year-old anti-apartheid leader had taken a turn for the better came amid a growing sense in South Africa that Mandela was approaching the end of his life. Well-wishers have delivered flowers and messages of support to the Pretoria hospital where he is being treated, and prayer sessions were held around the country on Thursday.

President Jacob Zuma’s office said in a statement that he received the encouraging update from the medical team that is treating Mandela. Zuma had canceled an international trip on Thursday, instead visiting Mandela for the second time in two days. . .

Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years during white racist rule and became president in all-race elections in 1994, was taken to a hospital on June 8 for what the government said was a recurring lung infection.

Zuma urged people to pray for Mandela, and continue with their work and daily activities even while he is hospitalized.

The president’s office said it was disturbed by what it called rumors about Mandela’s health and appealed for respect for the privacy and dignity of the former leader. Unconfirmed reports about Mandela have swirled on social media and other forums.

Mandela’s condition is acknowledged to be grave. He is on life support systems, according to a few television networks that quote anonymous sources, and presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj has declined to confirm or deny those reports.

Associated Press

President Obama is traveling in Africa this week, and is scheduled to visit South Africa on Saturday. He talked about Mandela during a news conference in Dakar, Senegal today:

The president grew even more personal when recalling the impact Mandela had on him during his years at Occidental College, when he made his first foray into political activism by protesting South Africa’s apartheid system of government.

“I had read his writings and speeches and understood this was somebody who believed in the basic principle I just talked about — treating people equally. He was willing to sacrifice his life for that belief,” Obama said.

Mandela, 94, is in critical condition with a lung infection. Obama is scheduled to visit South Africa on Saturday, though it is unclear whether the president will meet with Mandela’s family.

“He’s a personal hero, but I don’t think I’m unique in that regard,” Obama said. “He’s a hero for the world. If and when he passes from this place, one thing we all know is that his legacy is one that will linger on throughout the ages.”

David Nakamura

To see images from past meetings between Mandela and U.S. presidents, visit The Fix. For more on Mandela’s illness, continue reading here.

South Africa's president visited Nelson Mandela in the hospital on Wednesday and canceled a visit planned for the next day. (Associated Press)