JOHANNESBURG - US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle met with family members of ailing former South African leader Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg on Saturday.
The meeting took place at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory at the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
"Out of deference to Nelson Mandela's peace and comfort and the family's wishes, they will not be visiting the hospital," the White House said in a statement.
South Africa's ailing anti-apartheid
leader Nelson Mandela is doing much better in hospital, his ex-wife Winnie said
on Friday, as US President Barack Obama arrived for a visit that will pay
homage to a man he calls his "personal hero".
The faltering health of the
first black president of South Africa, a revered symbol of racial
reconciliation, has drawn world attention since the 94-year-old was rushed to
hospital with a recurring lung infection nearly three weeks ago.
this week, the government said Mandela's frail condition had turned critical,
but since Thursday President Jacob Zuma has reported that his health is
"I'm not a doctor, but I can say that from what he was a few
days ago, there is great improvement," Mandela's ex-wife, Winnie
Madikizela-Mandela, told reporters outside Mandela's former home in the
Johannesburg township of Soweto.
But, she added, he remained "clinically
Aboard Air Force One prior to arriving in South Africa, Obama
paid tribute to Mandela for the way he led his nation out of apartheid after
years of struggle, but said he did not need a "photo op" with the former
"Right now, our main concern is with his wellbeing, his
comfort, and with the family's wellbeing and comfort," he told reporters before
the U.S. presidential aircraft touched down on Friday evening at Waterkloof air
force base in Pretoria.
During his weekend trip to Johannesburg, Pretoria
and Cape Town, his second stop of a three-nation Africa tour, Obama is scheduled
on Sunday to visit Robben Island, where Mandela passed 18 of the 27 years he
spent in apartheid prisons.
White House officials have said they will
defer to the Mandela family on whether a visit to the hospital to see Madiba, as
he is affectionately known, would be appropriate.
LESSONS OF MANDELA
Obama told reporters his message in South Africa would draw from the lessons of
"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," he said.
White House officials said Obama would hold a "town
hall meeting" on Saturday with youth leaders in Soweto, the Johannesburg
township known for 1976 student protests against apartheid.
office since 2009, is making his first substantial visit to Africa following a
short trip to Ghana at the beginning of his first term.
well-wishers and journalists crowded outside the hospital in the capital
Pretoria where Mandela is being treated, a few blocks away, hundreds of
demonstrators protested against Obama's visit, some burning U.S.
Nearly 1,000 trade unionists, Muslim activists and South African
Communist Party members marched to the U.S. Embassy shouting slogans denouncing
Obama's foreign policy as "arrogant and oppressive".
held prayers in a car park outside the embassy. Leader Imam Sayeed Mohammed told
the group: "We hope that Mandela feels better and that Obama can learn from
him." South African critics of Obama have focused in particular on his support
for U.S. drone strikes overseas, which they say have killed hundreds of innocent
civilians, and his failure to fulfil a pledge to close the U.S. military
detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba housing terrorism
"TWO GREAT MEN"
Protesters said the first African-American
president should not try to link himself to the anti-apartheid
"Mandela valued human life ... Mandela would condemn drone
attacks and civilian deaths, Mandela cannot be his hero, he cannot be on that
list," said Yousha Tayob.
Not far away at the Pretoria heart hospital,
some of the people paying tribute to Mandela had words of praise for Obama, who
met Mandela in 2005 when he was still a U.S. senator.
Sanusi Olatunji, 31, had brought portraits of both Mandela and Obama to the wall
of the hospital, where flowers, tribute notes and gifts for Madiba, as Mandela
is affectionately known, have been piling up.
"These are the two great
men of my lifetime," he said.
As Mandela's health has deteriorated this
year, the realisation has grown among South Africa's 53 million people that the
man who forged their multi-racial "Rainbow Nation" from the ashes of apartheid
may be nearing his end.
The possibility of his dying has already
generated controversy among the extended Mandela clan.
A dispute between
two factions over where the family grave should be went to court on Friday when
his eldest daughter and more than a dozen other relatives sought an injunction
against Mandela's grandson, Mandla.
The state broadcaster SABC said a
court had ordered Mandla to return the remains of three of Mandela's children
from the village of Mvezo, where the anti-apartheid icon was born and where
Mandla is now an influential tribal chief, to their former graves in Qunu, the
village 20 km (13 miles) away where Mandela spent most of his
Mandla, 39, has built a memorial center in Mvezo that many
have interpreted as an attempt to ensure Mandela is buried there.