JOHANNESBURG — South Africa's president visited a gravely ill Nelson Mandela in the hospital on Wednesday night, and canceled a visit planned for the next day to Mozambique, an indication of heightened concern over the deteriorating health of the man widely considered the father of the country.

President Jacob Zuma found 94-year-old Mandela to still be in critical condition during the 10 p.m. visit and was briefed by doctors "who are still doing everything they can to ensure his well-being," Zuma's office said in a statement.

It said the president decided to cancel a visit to Maputo, the Mozambican capital, on Thursday, where he was to attend a meeting on regional investment.

As worries over Mandela mounted, Mac Maharaj, the presidential spokesman, declined to comment on media reports that the former president and anti-apartheid leader was on life support systems in the Pretoria hospital where he was taken June 8 to be treated for what the government said was a recurring lung infection.

"I cannot comment on the clinical details of these reports because that would breach the confidentiality of the doctor/patient relationship," Maharaj said in an interview with South Africa's Radio 702.

South Africans were torn on Wednesday between the desire not to lose Mandela, who defined the aspirations of so many of his compatriots, and resignation that the beloved former prisoner and president is approaching the end of his life.

The sense of anticipation and foreboding about Mandela's fate has grown since late Sunday, when the South African government declared that the condition of the statesman had deteriorated.

A tide of emotional tributes has built on social media and in hand-written messages and flowers laid outside the hospital and Mandela's home. On Wednesday, about 20 children from a day care center posted a hand-made card outside the hospital and recited a poem.

"Hold on, old man," was one of the lines in the Zulu poem, according to the South African Press Association.

In recent days, international leaders, celebrities, athletes and others have praised Mandela, not just as the man who steered South Africa through its tense transition from white racist rule to democracy two decades ago, but as a universal symbol of sacrifice and reconciliation.

In South Africa's Eastern Cape province, where Mandela grew up, a traditional leader said the time was near for Mandela, who is also known by his clan name, Madiba.

"I am of the view that if Madiba is no longer enjoying life, and is on life support systems, and is not appreciating what is happening around him, I think the good Lord should take the decision to put him out of his suffering," said the tribal chief, Phathekile Holomisa.

"I did speak to two of his family members, and of course, they are in a lot of pain, and wish that a miracle might happen, that he recovers again, and he becomes his old self again," he said. "But at the same time they are aware there is a limit what miracles you can have."

For many South Africans, Mandela's decline is a far more personal matter, echoing the protracted and emotionally draining process of losing one of their own elderly relatives.

One nugget of wisdom about the arc of life and death came from Matthew Rusznyah, a 9-year-old boy who stopped outside Mandela's home in the Johannesburg neighborhood of Houghton to show his appreciation.

"We came because we care about Mandela being sick, and we wish we could put a stop to it, like snap our fingers," he said. "But we can't. It's how life works."

His mother, Lee Rusznyah, said Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison under apartheid before becoming South Africa's first black president in all-race elections in 1994, had made the world a better place.

"All of us will end," Thabo Makgoba, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday. "We just want him to be peacefully released, whatever he's feeling at this moment, and to be reunited with his Maker at the perfect time, when God so wills."

The archbishop said: "Ultimately, we are all mortal. At some stage or another, we all have to die, and we have to move on, we have to be recalled by our Maker and Redeemer. We have to create that space for Madiba, to come to terms within himself, with that journey."

On Tuesday, Makgoba visited Mandela and offered a prayer in which he wished for a "peaceful, perfect, end" for the anti-apartheid leader, who was taken to the Pretoria hospital to be treated for what the government said was a recurring lung infection.

In the prayer, he asked for courage to be granted to Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, and others who love him "at this hard time of watching and waiting," and he appealed for divine help for the medical team treating Mandela.

Visitors to the hospital on Wednesday included Mandela's former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The couple divorced in 1996.

Mandela, whose 95th birthday is on July 18, served a single five-year term as president and afterward focused on charitable causes, but he withdrew from public life years ago and became increasingly frail in recent years. He last made a public appearance in 2010 at the World Cup soccer tournament, which was hosted by South Africa. At that time, he did not speak to the crowd and was bundled against the cold in a stadium full of fans.

On April 29, state television broadcast footage of a visit by Zuma and other leaders of the ruling party, the African National Congress, to Mandela's home. Zuma said at the time that Mandela was in good shape, but the footage – the first public images of Mandela in nearly a year – showed him silent and unresponsive, even when Zuma tried to hold his hand.

"Let's accept instead of crying," said Lucas Aedwaba, a security officer in Pretoria who described Mandela as a hero. "Let's celebrate that the old man lived and left his legacy."

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  • 1918

    Born July 18, 1918, son of a counselor to the paramount chief of the Thembu people near Qunu in what is now the Eastern Cape. He is widely known in South Africa by his clan name, Madiba. <br><em>Caption: Portrait of South African political leader Nelson Mandela between 1945 and 1960, wearing the traditional outfit of the Thembu tribe. (Photo by API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)</em>

  • 1940s

    Mandela devoted his life to the fight against white domination, leaving Fort Hare university in the early 1940s before completing his studies. He founded the ANC Youth League with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. <br><em>Caption: Nelson Mandela (3rd from right), leader of the African National Congress (ANC), Patrick Molaoa and Robert Resha charged with treason by the South-African Union walked to the room where their trial was being held, Drill Hall, Johannesburg, South Africa.(API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)</em>

  • 1961-1963

    Mandela was among the first to advocate armed resistance to apartheid, going underground in 1961 to form the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation). Charged with capital offences in the 1963 Rivonia Trial, his statement from the dock was his political testimony. "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." <br><em>Caption: The South African political leader Nelson Mandela giving a speech before the African Congress. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)</em>

  • 1964

    He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. <br><em>Caption: Eight men, among them anti-apartheid leader and member of the African National Congress (ANC) Nelson Mandela, sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia trial leave the Palace of Justice in Pretoria 16 June, 1964, with their fists raised in defiance through the barred windows of the prison car. The eight men were accused of conspiracy, sabotage and treason. (OFF/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • 1960s - 1970s

    Mandela spent nearly two decades as a prisoner on Robben Island, a barren lump of rock that sits in shark-infested waters off the coast of Cape Town and served as the apartheid government's main jail for political opponents. During his incarceration, Mandela largely faded from the public imagination in South Africa, although his then-wife Winnie kept the ANC torch alight throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. <br><em>Caption: Winnie Mandela, wife of jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela, defied her banning order by addressing a huge funeral crowd on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 1985, in Mamelodi Township at Pretoria. (AP Photo/Greg English) </em>

  • 1980s

    In the 1980s, he became the focus of the international anti-apartheid movement, and the "Free Nelson Mandela" slogan started to seep back into South Africa despite heavy censorship and curbs on political movements. <em><br> The demonstration for liberty of Nelson Mandela in Paris, France on June 1, 1986. (Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)</em>

  • 1990

    F.W. de Klerk, South Africa's last white president, finally lifted the ban on the ANC and other liberation movements on February 2, 1990, and Mandela walked free from jail nine days later, an event beamed live around the world. <em><br>Leader of National Party F.W. de Klerk at press briefing during private visit to Windhoek, Namibia. (Selwyn Tait/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)</em>

  • 1994

    A year later he was elected president of the ANC and in May 1994 was inaugurated as South Africa's first black president. He used his prestige and status to push for reconciliation between whites and blacks, setting up a Commission led by Archbiship Desmond Tutu to probe crimes committed by both sides in the anti-apartheid struggle. <em><br>Caption: President Nelson Mandela of South Africa celebrates his historic election win at the ANC victory party on May 2, 1994, at Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images)</em>

  • 1998

    South Africa shared the pain of Mandela's humiliating divorce in 1996 from Winnie Mandela, his second wife, and watched his courtship of Graca Machel, widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel, whom he married on in July 1998. <em><br>Caption: Winnie Mandela (c), then-wife of African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela, and then-head of the ANC social welfare department, announces 15 April, 1992, in Johannesburg to journalists that she resigned from her position in the wake of the collapse of her marriage with the ANC leader and renewed allegation of her involvement in townships killings. At right, her lawyer, Ismael Ayob. (REVOR SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • 1999

    In 1999, he handed over to younger leaders he saw as better equipped to manage a fast-growing, rapidly modernising economy - a rare example of an African leader voluntarily departing from power. <em><br>Caption: South African Presiden Nelson Mandela (C) flanked by deputy presidents Thabo Mbeki (R) & F.W. de Klerk. (William F. Campbell//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)</em>

  • 2007

    In 2007 Mandela celebrated his 89th birthday by launching an international group of elder statesmen, including fellow Nobel peace laureates Tutu and Jimmy Carter, to tackle world problems including climate change, HIV/AIDS and poverty. <em><br>Caption: Former South African President Nelson Mandela, left, is helped to his feet by his wife Graca, unseen left, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, right, and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, center, after the launch of 'The Elders,' in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Wednesday, July 18, 2007. (Greg Marinovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images) </em>

  • Mandela made his last appearance at a mass event in July 2010 at the final of the soccer World Cup. He received a thunderous ovation from the 90,000 at the Soccer City stadium in Soweto. He was hospitalized for nearly a week in January 2011 in Johannesburg with respiratory problems. The icon celebrated his 94th birthday in July 2012. <em>Caption: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, 94, and his wife Graca Machel at his home in Qunu, South Africa, Monday, Aug. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)</em>