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Mandela is what people like to remember about South Africa’s transition. It’s what they like to remember about the country,” Mr. Cronje said. “As we get confronted with more evidence of large-scale corruption … I think there are people who look to Mandela as an example and say, ‘We were better than this once.’”

Mr. Mandela, however, disengaged himself with the country’s politics fairly successfully over the past decade. But he remains almost a talisman for racial reconciliation, with one artist in India feeling so strongly about Mr. Mandela’s health that he sculpted his face out of sand on a beach on Sunday in the town of Puri. Near the face, he wrote out in sand, “Get well soon.”

That’s a wish that’s been broadcast repeatedly across television and radio stations in South Africa, printed in newspaper headlines and whispered as prayers in recent days for the increasingly frail icon.

Associated Press writer Thomas Phakane in Pretoria, South Africa, contributed to this report.