JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Former South African President Nelson Mandela returned home Friday from a hospital where the 92-year-old was treated for a respiratory infection, with only a glimpse of his head covered by a surgical cap visible as he was wheeled into an ambulance.
That brief view could symbolize Mandela's increasing disengagement from public life. South Africans expressed joy Friday that he is recovering, but there was also wistful realization that an icon is fading. Officials said Mandela now would be cared for in hospital-like conditions at home.
"Everyone was holding their hearts and saying not now," said Patricia Ramaila, who has lived across the street from Mandela for four years. "A person like Mr. Mandela — we still need him."
Mandela, who became South Africa's first black president after serving 27 years in prison for his fight against apartheid, largely retired from public life in 2004. He has made even fewer appearances in recent years.
Army Surgeon-General Vejaynand Ramlakan said Friday that Mandela's condition was stable and that he takes medication for a chronic, unnamed condition and needs help to walk. Officials said he was joking with his wife and nurses, and in good spirits.
Mandela himself has pushed his fellow South Africans to think beyond him.