Well-wishers have gathered at churches. Others have gone to the monuments built in his honor, offering prayers. Some said they hoped he would recover soon, while others said that he had lived a long life and that the country must let him go.
“It is not easy, but we must think of his pain,” said Katlego Tsolanku, a 30-year-old saleswoman at a shopping center near Soweto, preparing herself to let go of a man she idolizes: former President Nelson Mandela.
“He has given us so much,” she said. “He deserves to rest.”
Mr. Mandela spent a fourth day in intensive care at a Pretoria hospital on Tuesday, battling a lung infection that has raised fears that he is nearing the end of his life.
Family members, including his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and several of his grandchildren, have visited him in the last 24 hours. Local news reports said his daughter Zenani Dlamini, the South African ambassador to Argentina, is returning to the country to be at his side. His wife, Graça Machel, a children’s rights advocate, canceled a trip to London, where she had been scheduled to give a speech on hunger.
Mr. Mandela, 94, has been in frail health for the past few years and has been hospitalized four times since December. His lungs are fragile as a result of contracting tuberculosis during the 27 years he spent imprisoned for fighting the white supremacist government of apartheid-era South Africa.
Details about Mr. Mandela’s health have been tightly held. President Jacob Zuma released a brief statement on Tuesday saying that he had been briefed by Mr. Mandela’s doctors and that his condition was unchanged: serious but stable.
Andrew Mokete Mlangeni, who was a prisoner at Robben Island with Mr. Mandela, told The Sunday Times newspaper that “the family must release him so that God may have his own way.” He added, “We will say: ‘Thank you, God. You have given us this man.’”
Jabu Nkosi, a 59-year-old teacher, said she found it hard to imagine South Africa without Mr. Mandela.
“We wish that he would recover soon,” Ms. Nkosi said. “He is the father of our nation. But it depends on God. When the time is right, God will take him, and we will be grateful that God gave us this man.”
When Ms. Nkosi cast her ballot for Mr. Mandela and the African National Congress in 1994, it was the first time she had voted. The moment remains seared in her memory, she said.
“He has done his part to make a new South Africa,” she said. “We are grateful.”
In Sandton, a northern suburb that is the heart of South Africa’s financial services industry, some were fearful for the country’s future without Mr. Mandela.
“I think the A.N.C. loses its conscience when Mandela dies,” said David Brereton, a lawyer who works in an office building just off Nelson Mandela Square, a shopping plaza in the neighborhood. “The party will be able to do whatever it pleases. The moral compass goes.”
Mr. Mandela himself resisted the notion that he held some special power that gave South Africa its largely peaceful transition from white minority rule to democracy.
“A ridiculous notion is sometimes advanced that Mandela has been exclusively responsible for these real achievements of the South African people, particularly our smooth transition,” Mr. Mandela wrote in an opinion article published in The Sunday Times in 1996, while he was still president.
“If only to emphasize that I am human, and as fallible as anyone else, let me admit that these accolades do flatter me,” he wrote. “So too, does the Sunday Times editor’s attribution to me of ‘warmth of spirit and generosity,’ in the edition of 18 February. The compliment is genuinely appreciated, as long as it does not present the President as ‘superhuman’ and create the impression that the ANC — with its thousands of leaders and millions of supporters — is a mere rubber stamp of my ideas; and that the ministers, experts and others are all insignificant, under the magic spell of a single individual.”
Mr. Mandela has always been sanguine about his own mortality. In the same article, Mr. Mandela wrote: “I have long passed my teens; and the distance to my final destination is shorter than the road I have trudged over the years! What nature has decreed should not generate undue insecurity.”
Khotosokali Letsie, a 29-year-old clothing designer who lives in Soweto, said that lionizing Mr. Mandela detracted from the important roles played by others in South Africa’s struggle to end white rule.
“It was not Mandela alone who liberated us,” Mr. Letsie said.
“Personally, I am uncomfortable with making a cult of personality about Madiba,” she said, referring to Mr. Mandela by his clan name. “His face is everywhere, on our money, in statues. It is too much.”
By Lydia Polgreen / The NY Times