Nelson Mandela's health improved overnight and his condition remains critical but is now stable, the South African government said Thursday in a statement that brought a measure of relief to the country. One of the former president's daughters said he was still opening his eyes and reacting to the touch of his family even though his situation was precarious.

The report that the health of the 94-year-old anti-apartheid figure had taken a slight turn for the better came amid an increasingly somber mood in South Africa, where religious and traditional leaders have talked openly about the possibility of his death. For some, it dovetailed with the resilience of spirit and physique that Mandela had shown throughout his life, as a boxer, a prisoner, a peacemaker, a president and a humanitarian who inspired the world.

"We know that Madiba is a fighter, he's been a fighter all his life and he's tough," said presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj, using Mandela's clan name. He said the latest medical report had brought "a little bit of relief."