There may be no living figure so revered around the world as a symbol of sacrifice and reconciliation, his legacy forged in the fight against apartheid, the system of white minority rule that imprisoned him for 27 years.
As an idea, Mandela is monumental. As a 94-year-old man, he is frail and vulnerable, in hospital since Dec. 8, shielded from outside scrutiny by protective relatives and the South African government and military.
"He's sick. What can we do? He's sick," said Beauty Sedunedi, a Soweto resident who described Mandela as a hero. "People are crying, 'Oh, he mustn't die, he mustn't...' If God says 'come,' he'll come."
The former president would probably agree with that down-to-earth sentiment, as a man who is said to have been uncomfortable with his iconic status. The narrative of what he endured and what he contributed in the name of all South Africans tends to eclipse any personal failings, or shortcomings as a president when he took office for a five-year term after the country's first democratic elections in 1994. The country today struggles with poverty and inequality, but Mandela is widely credited with helping to avert race-driven chaos as South Africa emerged from apartheid.
He was diagnosed with a lung infection and had a procedure to remove gallstones after being admitted to a Pretoria hospital, and the South African presidency said Monday that Mandela would spend Christmas Day there. The physical decline of Mandela, who boxed in his youth and exercised regularly in prison, could be anyone's story; an ordinary man would make this wistful journey alone, or within the cocoon of family intimacy.
In the case of a man-turned-myth, however, the media, the government and the nation are passengers on what has become an awkward ride, defined by tension between the right to medical privacy and the public's interest.
"They were very secretive about his health," Sebastian Moloi, another resident of the Johannesburg township of Soweto, said of the government's initial, sometimes contradictory pronouncements about Mandela's condition. "They shouldn't keep it away from the public."
Moloi spoke outside Regina Mundi, a Catholic church that was a center of protests and funeral services for activists during the apartheid years. He said Mandela was the "godfather" of South Africa, but objected to extreme discretion about Mandela's hospital stay, saying: "He gets enough privacy in his home."
Officials have reported that Mandela has steadily improved, but warn the situation is inherently uncertain because of his age. The media has urged the government to provide regular updates or briefings with doctors. Dire rumors have swirled on social media, angering Mac Maharaj, the presidency's spokesman.
"Why are there no voices raised in our society against the human depravity manifested in such rumors?" Eyewitness News, a South African media outlet, quoted Maharaj as saying. "It has become a matter of concern. Is it not time for all of us to look at ourselves in the mirror?"
In fact, Mandela's public image has been closely managed for a long time. He has not been seen on a major stage since South Africa hosted the World Cup football tournament in 2010, and his meetings have become increasingly rare.
In August, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Mandela at his home in the village of Qunu in Eastern Cape province. An Associated Press photographer who accompanied Clinton said the former leader appeared "fragile although also happy," and seemed pleased to see his visitor.
"After some deliberation, at the last moment, I was allowed inside to photograph them together. While I was in the room I never heard him say a word or hardly even move," photographer Jacquelyn Martin wrote in an email. She described how aides encouraged Mandela to smile for the camera and remarked fondly to him on what a beautiful smile he had. They called him "Madiba," which is Mandela's clan name, a term of affection.
"He scarcely moved and was a whisper of the legend," Martin wrote. She said Mandela was seated in a corner with a blanket over his legs and a newspaper in his lap. His wife, Graca Machel, was also there.
In 2009, British journalist David James Smith met the Nobel laureate while working on "Young Mandela," a book that sought, in part, to humanize the man by examining reports about his often conflicted family life.
In an email, Smith said he was required to sign a document promising he would not ask "direct questions," take photos or ask Mandela to endorse any products.
"He was sitting in his huge office behind a massive desk and seemed slightly shrivelled and sparrow-like in comparison with the sharp-suited giant of the 1950s I had come to know so well from my research," Smith wrote.
"He apologized for not getting up to greet me. 'My knees will not allow it.' I struggled to get a conversation going for a few minutes until I told him I had been to Qunu and met his 'brother' Sitsheketshe, who had been brought up with Mandela as his brother after his own parents had died."
Smith recounted: "'Ah, Sitsheketshe!' he boomed. 'Do you know the story of how he came to live with my family?' I did but said I didn't and off he went ... He seemed mortal and ordinary and that I think is one of the reasons why, though not a saint, he is a very great human being."
Sitsheketshe Morris Mandela, Nelson's cousin, died this year at the age of 80.
History offers rough parallels for Mandela and the movement to safeguard his legacy as he approaches the end of his life. Men of his stature — American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. and Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi — were assassinated while actively engaged in their callings. Tragedy elevated their reputations.
The Soweto mural marks Mandela's birth in 1918; the Rivonia trial that led to his conviction for sabotage in 1964; the 1990 release from prison; the 1993 awarding of the Nobel peace prize to Mandela and the last white ruler, F.W. de Klerk; Mandela's 1994 election as South Africa's first black president; and his 90th birthday in 2008.
Truly, a momentous life. Yet Mandela, whose image adorns South African banknotes and statues and whose name was bestowed on buildings and squares, found ambiguity in it. In a passage described as part of an unpublished sequel to his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," he wrote:
"One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image that I unwittingly projected to the outside world; of being regarded as a saint. I never was one, even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."
Reflecting on his 2009 meeting, Smith said in an interview that Mandela still retained his spark of charisma, "the glint of mischief that he had that people were so charmed by, presidents and paupers."
But he added: "You can imagine that must be almost gone now."