Mandela showing 'sustained' improvement: Zuma

Nelson Mandela is showing a "sustained" improvement after more than a week in hospital battling a lung infection although his condition remains serious, South African President Jacob Zuma said Sunday.

"As you are aware, president Nelson Mandela is still in hospital in Pretoria. We are grateful that he continues to get better," Zuma said at a public rally.

"Over the last two days, although he remains serious, his doctors have stated that his improvement has been sustained. He continues to engage with family."

The frail 94-year-old anti-apartheid hero was admitted to a private Pretoria clinic in the early hours of June 8 because of a recurring lung infection, his fourth hospitalisation since December.

Mandela's latest health problems have seen South Africans come to terms with the mortality of the man regarded as the father of the "Rainbow Nation" as its first black president.

Zuma was speaking in Newcastle, some 450 kilometres (280 miles) southeast of Johannesburg, at a rally to commemorate the 1976 Soweto student uprising during white minority rule.

Zuma urged the nation to keep Madiba, Mandela's clan name by which he is affectionately known, in "our thoughts and prayers," as messages of support from the public continued to pour in.

Several family members, including his wife Graca Machel and ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela have paid visits to his bedside at the Pretoria hospital, where security remains tight and visitors restricted.

His grandson Mandla Mandela said on Saturday that the Nobel peace laureate had "looked good" when he visited him, adding: "It gave us hope that he is going to recover soon".

Mandela has a long history of lung problems since being diagnosed with early-stage tuberculosis in 1988 during his 27 years in prison under the apartheid regime.

In December he underwent surgery to remove gallstones as he recovered from a lung infection. In March he was admitted for scheduled overnight checkup before returning to hospital later that month for 10 days, again for treatment for the lung infection.

Ordinary South Africans continued to pray for their hero.

"Today we are going to say a special prayer for our beloved Madiba," said Patricia Morkel, who stopped outside his Johannesburg home on her way to church.

"We are going to pray that he doesn't have to endure much more pain. The man has suffered a lot. He needs to be comfortable at home," she said.

Worshippers at Soweto's Regina Mundi Catholic Church, which became a focal point for anti-apartheid activists, also said prayers for the town's former resident.

"He is the first citizen of this country. Our father and icon. Everyone in this country is greatly indebted to him," said Victoria Dlamini.

However, police guarding Mandela's rural homestead in the village of Qunu had to chase away one church group after they started taking pictures of themselves outside the house, SAPA news agency reported.

"They were taking some photos outside the house after they were informed not to take any," said police spokesman Mzukisi Fatyela, but added that they were not arrested.

Mandela, who turns 95 next month, has not appeared in public since the World Cup final in South Africa in July 2010.

He looked frail and distant in a much-criticised April video showing Zuma and other members of the ruling African National Congress visiting him at his Johannesburg home.

On Saturday, one of his bodyguards accused his military medical team of curtailing Mandela's freedom by imposing unnecessarily tough restrictions on visits.

Shaun van Heerden said Mandela was a very lonely man and that "at times it felt like he was back in prison".