South Africans lit candles outside the hospital where anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela lay Wednesday night amid a report that the former president was on life support.
An official briefed on his condition said he was on life support, but government spokesman Mac Maharaj declined to comment on the report, citing doctor-patient confidentiality.
Mandela, 94, considered the founding father of South Africa's multiracial democracy, has been hospitalized since June 8 for a recurring lung infection.
Authorities have described his condition as critical since Sunday, and after visiting him late Wednesday night, President Jacob Zuma canceled his visit to Mozambique where he was supposed to attend a summit Thursday on infrastructure investment.
As the nation remained on edge, police barricaded the street leading to the hospital's main entrance. Well-wishers hung balloons, stuffed animals and messages of support along the wall, and crowds hovering nearby sang "Where is Mandela?"
"We need you!," one sign read. "We love you tata, get well soon!" said another, referring to Mandela by the Xhosa word for father.
Several relatives came out to collect some of those items Wednesday.
"He's going to feel a lot better when he sees these signs," said David Manaway, Mandela's grandson-in-law.
His former physician and the nation's ex-surgeon general, Dr. Vejay Ramlakan, also visited the hospital Wednesday, said the national news agency, South African Press Association.
Mandela became an international figure while enduring 27 years in prison for fighting against apartheid, the country's system of racial segregation. He was elected the nation's first black president in 1994, four years after he was freed.
"He is our hero. He is my mentor, my father. He is everything to me," said Kuda Nyahumzvi, 36. "But when it is his time, we wish his soul could just rest. He spent so long in jail and struggling."
Even as he has faded from the spotlight, he remains popular and is considered a hero of democracy worldwide.
As South Africans steeled themselves for the worst, details emerged about the family's meeting in his boyhood home of Qunu on Tuesday. An archbishop also stopped by the hospital and conducted prayers, calling for "a quiet night and a peaceful, perfect end" for the former president.
Archbishop Thabo Makgoba joined the family at the hospital where Mandela remained in critical condition, the South African Press Association reported.
"Fill them with your holy courage and the gift of trusting faith, and take away their fears so that they may dare to face their grief," he said, according to a copy of the prayer posted on the bishop's website.
"And uphold all of us with your steadfast love so that we may be filled with gratitude for all the good that he has done for us and for our nation, and may honor his legacy through our lives."
During the meeting in Qunu, funeral arrangements were not part of the talks, family friend Bantu Holomisa said, according to SAPA.
As a former head of state, plans for Mandela's funeral are spearheaded by the government, according to Holomisa.
Mandela turns 95 in July.