By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela is comfortable and able to breathe without problems as he continues to respond to treatment in hospital for a recurrence of pneumonia, President Jacob Zuma's office said on Saturday.
After the revered 94-year-old statesman and former South African president spent a third night in hospital, the presidency said doctors had drained excess fluid from his lungs to tackle the infection.
"This has resulted in him now being able to breathe without difficulty. He continues to respond to treatment and is comfortable," the statement added.
In the first detailed mention of his medical condition since his latest hospitalization, the third in four months, the presidency said the Nobel Peace Prize laureate had "developed a pleural effusion which was tapped".
Previous bulletins since he was taken to hospital late on Wednesday have reported him responding well, in "good spirits".
They have appeared to indicate that the recurrence of the lung infection afflicting Mandela is being successfully treated.
Mandela, who became South Africa's first black president in 1994 and stepped down five years later, has been mostly absent from the political scene for the past decade. But he remains an enduring and beloved symbol of the struggle against racism.
Global figures such as U.S. President Barack Obama have sent get well messages and South Africans have included Mandela in their prayers on the Easter weekend, one of the most important dates of the Christian calendar.
Mandela is revered at home and abroad for leading the struggle against white minority rule, then promoting the cause of racial reconciliation when in power.
His fragile health has been a concern for years as he has withdrawn from the public eye and mostly stayed at his affluent homes in Johannesburg and in Qunu, the rural village in the destitute Eastern Cape province near where he was born.
"FATHER OF THE NATION"
South Africans of all ages and walks of life have been following the official medical bulletins closely.
"He is the father of the nation, our Abraham Lincoln, our George Washington," said South African economics student Curtis Richardson, 19, as he visited Nelson Mandela Square in an upscale Johannesburg shopping mall with friends.
Mandela remains an inspirational figure worldwide.
"If he dies, it will be a tragedy, because he's such a symbol," said Kagisho Paterson, 19, a visitor from Britain, snapping photos near a towering statue of Mandela in the square.
English Premiership League soccer team Sunderland AFC designated Saturday "Nelson Mandela Day" to kick off its new deal supporting the ex-president's charitable foundation. The partnership would start with fundraising efforts during the team's home clash with Manchester United, Sunderland added.
Mandela's ruling African National Congress (ANC) is still the dominant force in South African politics, but critics say it has lost the moral compass bequeathed it by the previous generation of anti-apartheid freedom fighters.
Under such leaders as Mandela and the late Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, the ANC gained wide international respect when it battled white rule.
Once the yoke of apartheid was thrown off in 1994, it began governing South Africa in a blaze of goodwill from world leaders who viewed it as a beacon for a troubled continent and world.
Almost two decades later, this image has dimmed as ANC leaders have been accused of indulging in the spoils of office, squandering mineral resources and engaging in power struggles.
Mandela was in hospital briefly earlier this month for a check-up and spent nearly three weeks in hospital in December with a lung infection and after surgery to remove gallstones.
He has a history of lung problems dating back to when he contracted tuberculosis as a political prisoner.
A Nigerian visitor to Johannesburg, civil engineer Gregory Osugba, 35, called Mandela "an icon of greatness and freedom" for the entire African continent and the world.
"When he goes ... the symbol will remain," he said.
(Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Andrew Heavens)