The 93-year-old former president was released Sunday after spending the night in hospital for a minor exploratory procedure to investigate complaints of persistent abdominal pain.
President Jacob Zuma’s office said Mandela was resting with family at his home in the leafy suburb of Houghton.
But even as South Africa breathed a collective sigh of relief, Mandela’s latest hospitalisation forced the nation to contemplate the day when the man who led it from the dark days of white-minority rule will no longer be here.
“Whenever it comes, it will come as a shock. There will be a lot of public mourning because of the influence he had over the last 70 years in South Africa and over the life of most South Africans,” Frans Cronje of the South African Institute of Race Relations told AFP.
“It is precisely because we know that Mandela is frail, that he will not be with us forever, that we hold our collective breath each time he goes to hospital amid rumours of ill health,” said an editorial in The Times.
“He remains the father of our new, post-apartheid nation and his presence — however much he no longer occupies a visible, public space — offers us comfort. To imagine a South Africa without him is, for many, an unthinkable sorrow.”
Mandela, once a spry former boxer who stayed fit during his 27 years in prison by doing calisthenics in his cell, has grown increasingly frail as a nonagenarian.
His last public appearance was at the final of the World Cup in South Africa in July 2010.
Rumours of his death or failing health flare up periodically, forcing the government to issue reassurances that all is well.
His last hospitalisation, in January last year, sparked public panic and a media frenzy as the government and Mandela’s charitable foundation refused to release information on his condition.
The media generally praised the government for handling last weekend’s hospital stay better than that of 2011, when Mandela underwent two days of treatment for an acute respiratory infection initially described as “routine” testing.
Officials moved quickly to announce that “Madiba”, as he is affectionately known, had been hospitalised, and to issue updates.
Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, whose ministry is in charge of Mandela’s health care, gave a press conference Sunday detailing the procedure he had undergone: a diagnostic laparoscopy, or “keyhole operation”, a surgery in which doctors make small incisions in the abdominal area to probe it with a tiny camera
But officials refused to say where he was being treated, appealing for privacy. They still have not detailed the exact nature of his ailment.
He was brought home surreptitiously, in what journalists gathered outside his house only realised in retrospect was probably an unmarked black vehicle with tinted windows.
The media have developed an ambivalent relationship with their own coverage of the global icon’s health scares.
“Madiba is no ordinary man but despite his innumerable achievements he is human, not deserving to be treated like a spectacle. So, it is about time he was given a breather to recuperate in peace,” said the Sowetan’s editorial.
Columnist Robyn Curnow, who is also a South Africa correspondent for CNN, summed up why the nation, now 18 years into post-apartheid democracy, holds its breath each time it is forced to contemplate a Mandela-less future.
“Nelson Mandela is held in deep affection because he reminds South Africans of how far they have come,” she wrote in The Times. “Mandela rekindles South Africans’ nostalgia for a time when this country was a miracle of democracy.”