PRETORIA – US President Barack Obama Saturday decided not to visit his political hero Nelson Mandela in hospital to preserve the “peace and comfort” of the anti-apartheid legend, whose family he will meet to offer prayers instead.
The US leader will hold up Mandela’s unifying legacy as an example to an emerging continent, even as the plight of the father of multi-racial South Africa added poignancy and a delicate political dimension to his visit.
“The President and First Lady will meet privately with members of the Mandela family to offer their thoughts and prayers at this difficult time,” a US official said, as Obama arrived in Pretoria for talks with South African President Jacob Zuma in the middle leg of a three-nation swing.
“Out of deference to Nelson Mandela’s peace and comfort and the family’s wishes, they will not be visiting the hospital,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Obama said Friday he did not need a photo-op with Mandela, who he meet briefly in 2005, but aides did not definitively rule out a visit to the hospital before he arrived in Johannesburg on Friday night.
Mandela’s condition presented Obama with a delicate political challenge.
He must balance a desire to honour Mandela, in perhaps his final days, with a message that the United States wants to play a key diplomatic and economic role in a region on the rise.
Obama’s helicopter swept low over the Pretoria hills to land in front of the imposing sandstone Union Buildings, the seat of South Africa’s government, for talks and a press conference with Zuma.
Later, he will head to Soweto, the sprawling township where riots sparked a nationwide struggle against the racist apartheid regime, while Mandela and fellow African National Congress leaders were in prison.
The US leader will hold a town hall style meeting with young leaders from all over Africa, driving home his theme that it is time for a new generation to guide the continent into a new era of democracy and prosperity.
Supporters have been gathering outside the Pretoria hospital to offer prayers for the man who negotiated an end to decades of white minority rule and a wall of handwritten prayers for Mandela’s recovery has become the focal point for South Africans paying tribute to the father of their nation, with singing and dancing by day and candlelight vigils at night.
Tokozile Sibalo, 50, a receptionist in an internet company came with her daughters, 20 and 12.
“I’m here this morning to give my prayers. It’s important because Mandela is so important to us South Africans and Africans,” she said.
Before the White House announced Obama’s decision, she said she hoped the president would visit Mandela in hospital.
“They share the same thing. Mandela has been the first black president in South Africa and Obama has been the first black president in America.”
“It will also lift up Mandela to see that Obama thinks about Africa”, she said.
A visit by Obama to Mandela’s former jail cell on Robben Island, off Cape Town, on Sunday in particular is expected to be laden with symbolism.
Obama will then visit former Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s youth foundation HIV centre before delivering the central speech of his African tour at the University of Cape Town.
Mandela has been hospitalised four times since December, mostly for a stubborn lung infection.
Mandela may be out of sight, but his influence is palpable on Obama’s tour of Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.
A public meeting between the first black presidents of the United States and South Africa, who in their own way both shattered racial barriers had long been anticipated, but Obama was unable to visit South Africa in his first term, before Mandela’s decline accelerated.
Instead, Obama will hold up Mandela’s legacy Saturday as an example for African leaders as they seek to lift the continent from a challenging past to a more prosperous and peaceful future.
“The message will be consistent because it draws on the lessons of Nelson Mandela’s own life,” Obama told reporters on Friday.
“If we focus on what Africa as a continent can do together and what these countries can do when they’re unified, as opposed to when they’re divided by tribe or race or religion, then Africa’s rise will continue.
“That’s one of the central lessons of what Nelson Mandela accomplished not just as president, but in the struggle to overcome apartheid and his years in prison.”
Fears for Mandela’s health have eased slightly, as the 94-year-old’s ex-wife Winnie said Friday there had been a “great improvement” though he was still said to be in a critical condition.