Johannesburg - Barack Obama will express "profound gratitude" for
Nelson Mandela Saturday, as his hero's battle for life adds a emotional edge to
his first visit to South Africa as president.
Obama said he did not need a photo-op with Mandela following speculation he
could visit the anti-apartheid icon and his fellow Nobel peace laureate in the
Pretoria hospital where he has been for more than three weeks.
Fears for Mandela health, weighing heavily on Obama's three-nation Africa
tour, eased slightly on Friday, as the 94-year-old's ex-wife Winnie said there
had been a "great improvement" though he was still said to be in a
Obama, who met Mandela once in Washington in 2005, said his primary concern
was for the comfort of the ex-South African president and the well-being of his
"The last thing I want to do is to be in any way obtrusive," Obama
said as he flew from Senegal to South Africa, the second leg of a three-nation
tour his administration sees a chance to make up for lost time on the
"I think that the message we'll want to deliver is not directly to him
but to his family, is simply profound gratitude for his leadership all these
years," Obama said.
Mandela, who turns 95 next month, has been in intensive care for three weeks
for a recurrent lung disease dating from his years in apartheid-era prisons.
But after taking a turn for the worse last weekend, he has since shown
tentative signs of recovery.
Supporters have been gathering outside the hospital to offer prayers for the
man who negotiated an end to decades of racist white minority rule and went on
to become South Africa's first black president.
"I came to pray for our father Nelson Mandela. We are wishing for our
father to be fine," said Thabo Mahlangu, aged 12, part of a group from a
home for abandoned children who travelled to Pretoria.
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.
One message read: "If you can fight prison, you can beat this".
Another said: "You are such an incredible inspiration to millions".
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.
Before then, Obama will try to make sure that the main message of his tour,
that the US sees Africa as poised for explosive growth after years as an aid
recipient, is not eclipsed.
He will hold talks and a press conference in Pretoria on Saturday with
President Jacob Zuma before travelling to Soweto to hold a town hall style
conversation with young leaders from all over the African continent.
Back in Pretoria on Saturday evening, Zuma will throw an official dinner for
the US leader.
After touring Robben Island on Sunday, Obama will 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.
Obama leaves South Africa on Monday, for the final stop on his tour,
The US leader will not be greeted warmly by all South Africans.
"NObama" demonstrations were held in Pretoria by a coalition of
leftist, pro-Palestinian and anti-drone groups.
The group was protesting against what it described as the "arrogant,
selfish and oppressive foreign policies" of the US.