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Mandela, 94, in hospital with recurring lung infection

Former South African president Nelson Mandela celebrates his birthday with family in Qunu, South Africa, on July 18, 2012. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Schalk van Zuydam

Former South African president Nelson Mandela is in a “serious but stable” condition after being taken to hospital early on Saturday with a recurring lung infection, the government said in a statement.

The 94-year-old, who became the first black leader of Africa’s biggest economy in 1994, has been in hospital three times since December. He has been battling the infection for a few days, the government said in a statement.

Mandela has suffered respiratory problems ever since he contracted tuberculoses at the notorious Robben Island prison camp near Cape Town.

Mandela served nearly three decades behind bars for conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government.

Widely seen as a unifying figure, Mandela enjoys popularity across South Africa.

“Get well soon Papa Madiba, we want you to be well very soon, we miss you,” a tourist said.

Another tourist, Eva Van Niekerk, said, “We wish that he can come out as quickly as possible, so that he can see all the people waiting in his house for him to come home.”

Increasingly frail, Mandela is rarely seen in public, dividing his time between his plush Johannesburg home and Qunu, the village in the impoverished Eastern Cape where he was born.

Mandela’s last appearance in public was at the final of the soccer World Cup in Johannesburg in 2010.