Mandela: our hero and our neighbour

Long before Nelson Mandela's persistent ill health, Kekana Mangqwambi would drop in on his famous neighbour and rib the revered icon about his love life.

The 92-year-old, Mandela's junior by just two years, met South Africa's first black leader after he returned to his childhood village Qunu once freed from an apartheid jail.

"We used to spend time together. I normally arrived at night," said Mangqwambi sitting outside a thatched mud hut in the winter sun.

"I used to say "vuka sishumani ndini" (wake up man with no girlfriend) and he would wake up, laugh, stand up and shake hands. Then I would sit down and we would chat the entire night."

To the world, Nelson Mandela is a near-mythical peace symbol who reconciled a fractured nation after decades of apartheid.

Here in Qunu's gentle hills, he is no less a hero. But he is also a neighbour and fellow villager.

"He's not my friend, he's more than a friend to me. He's like my brother," said Mangqwambi, who went on his first helicopter ride with Mandela.

Despite being one of the world's most recognisable faces, Mandela was always down to earth.

"You will never realise even if you came while we were staying together that he is important," Mangqwambi told AFP.

Stories tell of Mandela walking through the village's scattered homesteads with no airs and graces -- no matter whom he met.

"He's a hero," said Masiviwe Geledwana, who described him as "somebody like a god" who was incomparable to someone like himself.

Geledwana spoke to him several times, hearing his stories and with Mandela passing on his life philosophy.

"He told me that when you're a human being (and) you want to grow up like him, you're supposed to respect everybody, take all people equal, no matter...where they come from," said the 27-year-old

Mandela was human and old, making it natural for him to be hospitalised, said Geledwana, acknowledging the reports of his improving health.

"Madiba is a man, he's a man, he's not a coward and I think God, he will save Tata (father) Madiba. I believe that," he said, using Mandela's clan name.

Qunu now has electricity and running water in communal taps -- a far cry from Mandela's early upbringing here in the 1920s.

But it still remains a slow-paced and traditional life, with modest houses, livestock and home gardens.

Feted by world leaders, celebrities and royalty, Mandela himself once said Qunu represented "a different dimension all together".

Joe Mdlangazi, 54, remembers Mandela dropping in on his home and said he was like an ordinary person.

The Nobel peace laureate would ask why the children were sleeping on the floor under dirty blankets, and Mdlangazi would tell him that he had once slept the same way.

"We want him to come back to Qunu because it's where his home is. We still need him because he changed our lives a lot," said Mdlangazi.

Amid reports that Mandela is improving but still in a serious condition, Lwandile Gabada, 25, is hoping for him to get well and return home.

"We wish to see him, then we can say he's better."