Mandela back in hospital in ‘serious’ condition

Updated 3:26 PM EDT, Sat June 8, 2013

Story highlights

NEW: "Anxiety shown by people throughout the world is perfectly understandable," spokesman says

NEW: Mandela is taken to a Pretoria hospital early Saturday

NEW: He is breathing on his own despite lung infection

His history of lung problems dates to when he was a political prisoner

(CNN) —  

Former South African President Nelson Mandela was discharged from the hospital Saturday, the country’s presidential office said, “following a sustained and gradual improvement in his general condition.”

Mandela was hospitalized early Saturday after the state of his health deteriorated in the last few days, Maharaj said earlier.

“He’s receiving the best possible care,” he said. “Everything is being done to ensure that he is comfortable and that he is getting better.”

Maharaj said that the anti-apartheid icon is breathing on his own.

Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, is at the hospital with him, sources told CNN. She canceled her plans to attend the Hunger Summit meeting in London on Saturday.

South Africa’s first black president gets round-the-clock care, and his house is retrofitted with medical equipment that mirrors that of an intensive care unit.

Mandela, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has become increasingly frail over the years and has not appeared in public since South Africa hosted the World Cup in 2010.

Despite his rare public appearances, news of his ailment spark concerns worldwide.

“I think the concern, the anxiety shown by people throughout the world and South Africa is perfectly understandable,” Maharaj said. “I think it is also true simultaneously that people have come to terms with his age. The most important thing is that we should realize that this is a life that we need to celebrate, even when he’s with us. And we will celebrate it, even when he is not with us.”

His history of lung problems dates back to when he was a political prisoner on Robben Island during apartheid. He contracted tuberculosis during the 27 years he was imprisoned.

His history of lung problems dates to when he was a political prisoner on Robben Island during apartheid, and he has battled respiratory infections over the years.

He underwent treatment for a lung infection and had surgery to remove gallstones over the Christmas holiday in 2012, one of his longest hospital stays since his release from prison in 1990.

Considered the founding father of South Africa’s democracy, Mandela became an international figure while enduring 27 years in prison for fighting against apartheid, the country’s system of racial segregation.

“He has taught us … that we enhance our own humanity when we serve and make a difference to other people’s lives,” Maharaj said. “It’s easy to serve oneself, own interests, but serving the interests of others, making their lives better changes the quality of all humanity.”

In 1993, Mandela and then-South African President F.W. de Klerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The iconic leader was elected the nation’s first black president a year later, serving only one term, as he had promised.

He has not appeared in public since South Africa hosted the World Cup in 2010.

Mandela’s impact extends far beyond South African borders. After he left office, he mediated conflicts from Africa to the Middle East.

CNN’s Robyn Curnow reported from Johannesburg and Faith Karimi reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Brent Swalis, Ben Brumfield and Espirit Smith contributed to this report .