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Pretoria, South Africa (CNN) — After hours of vigils and secret family meetings, South Africans awoke to another day of unease Wednesday as ailing anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela remained hospitalized in critical condition.

Papa Madiba Mandele

“Former President Nelson Mandela’s condition remains unchanged in hospital and doctors continue to do their best to ensure his recovery, well-being and comfort,” the government said in a statement late Tuesday night.

As the nation remained on edge, police barricaded the street leading to the hospital’s main entrance.

Well-wishers hung balloons, stuffed animals and messages of support along the wall outside his Pretoria hospital . Crowds hovering nearby sang “where is Mandela” as they matched toward the entrance.

Mandela has been hospitalized since June 8 for a recurring lung infection, and authorities have described his condition as critical in the last few days.

“We need you!,” one sign read. “We love you tata, get well soon!” said another, referring to Mandela by the Xhosa word for father.

The nation’s former surgeon general, Dr Vejay Ramlakan, visited Mandela at the hospital Wednesday, said the national news agency, South African Press Association.

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 was elected the nation’s first black president in 1994, four years after he was freed from prison.

“He is our hero. He is my mentor, my father. He is everything to me,” said Kuda Nyahumzvi, 36. “But when it is his time, we wish his soul could just rest. He spent so long in jail and struggling.”

Even as he has faded from the spotlight, he remains popular and is considered a hero of democracy worldwide.

As South Africans steeled themselves for the worst, the family turned to prayer.

Relatives met in his boyhood home of Qunu while an archbishop led his family in prayer Tuesday, calling for “a quiet night and a peaceful, perfect, end” for the former president.


Bishop Thabo Markgoba

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba joined the family at the hospital where the anti-apartheid icon remains in critical condition, the South African Press Association reported.

“Fill them with your holy courage and the gift of trusting faith, and take away their fears so that they may dare to face their grief,” he said, according to a copy of the prayer posted on the bishop’s website.

“And uphold all of us with your steadfast love so that we may be filled with gratitude for all the good that he has done for us and for our nation, and may honor his legacy through our lives.”

Mandela turns 95 in July.