A court paper filed June 27 concerning Mandela family graves described the anti-apartheid leader as being in a "permanent vegetative state." A later filing dropped that phrase. Both court filings, however, said that Mandela's breathing was machine assisted.
A close friend of Mandela's visited him in the hospital earlier this week. Denis Goldberg said the 94-year-old was conscious and responding to what he was saying.
Goldberg said the legal papers that said Mandela was "vegetative" might have been written when Mandela was in a coma or unconscious, and that perhaps Mandela then improved.
Still, Mandela's situation is grave. Another court affidavit said that "the anticipation of his impending death is based on real and substantial grounds." A South African doctor, Adri Kok, said it was unlikely that a person of Mandela's age can be taken off mechanical ventilation, another word for life support, and recover.
The court filing came in a case brought by 15 Mandela family members against a Mandela grandson who had moved the remains of three Mandela children from their original burial site. A court ordered the bodies to be moved back to Mandela's hometown of Qunu.
Mandela has been hospitalized with a recurring lung infection.
He spent 27 years in prison during white racist rule. He was freed in 1990 and became South Africa's first black president in 1994.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.