Former South African President Nelson Mandela was whisked home yesterday from a hospital where the 92-year-old had been treated for a respiratory infection.
All the doting, waiting onlookers were treated to was a glimpse of his head covered by a surgical cap as he was wheeled into an ambulance.
That brief view could symbolise Mr Mandela's increasing disengagement from public life. South Africans expressed joy yesterday that the man regarded as the father of the nation was recovering.
However, there were many also wistful at the realisation that an icon was fading. Officials said Mr Mandela would now 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 Mr Mandela for four years. "A person like Mr Mandela -- we still need him."
Mr 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 while others, like retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have increasingly taken on the role of South Africa's national conscience.
Army Surgeon-General Vejaynand Ramlakan said last night that Mr Mandela's condition was stable, and that he took medication for a chronic, unnamed condition and needed help to walk. Officials said he was joking with his wife and nurses, and was in good spirits.
"Despite all of this, his amazing positive attitude allows him to cope with the difficulties of old age with the greatest of grace," Dr Ramlakan said.
Mr Mandela has pushed his fellow South Africans to think beyond him.
A dearth of updates since Mr Mandela was admitted on Wednesday afternoon had led to speculation and concern about his condition. Journalists camped outside the hospital and his Johannesburg home.
Officials said yesterday that Mandela's office had received more than 10,000 messages of support and well wishes, including one from US President Barack Obama.
Mr Mandela had a respiratory infection eight years ago and also contracted tuberculosis in 1988 while in prison, Dr Ramlakan said. In 1985, Mr Mandela also had surgery for an enlarged prostate gland.