U.S. President Barack Obama says he is uncertain whether he’ll meet ailing South African icon Nelson Mandela after he arrives in the country for a much-anticipated visit Friday.
Speaking to reporters aboard the presidential plane Air Force One on Friday,Obama played down expectations of a visit with the 94-year-old Mandela.
"I don't need a photo op," said the president. "The last thing I want to do is to be in any way obtrusive, at a time when the family is concerned with Nelson Mandela's condition."
Mandela has spent several days in critical condition in a Pretoria hospital, prompting an outpouring of support - and overshadowing Obama’s visit. He is doing better but remains critical, said his ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, on Friday.
The presidency and the family have been publicly reluctant to give any specific details about his medical status. Mandela has been in critical condition since Sunday.
“I am not here to answer any medical questions. I am not a doctor, but I can say from what he was a few days ago there is great improvement, but clinically he is still unwell," said Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
Khusela Sangoni-Khawe, a spokeswoman for South Africa’s ruling party, said top party officials visited the hospital on Friday and found the same, though they only spoke to the family and doctors, as the doctors advised that Mandela’s condition was too dire for them to be able to see him in person.
Like many South Africans, she referred to the 94-year-old icon by his clan name, Madiba.
“And we received reports that indeed Comrade Mandela remains in a critical but stable condition. We are calling on all South Africans to continue to pray for Madiba during this time. The ANC is filling out prayer meetings throughout the country, where we are going to be keeping President Mandela, his family and medical team in our thoughts," said Sangoni-Khawe.
Mandela’s health is overshadowing the visit of another Nobel Peace Laureate who was also elected his nation’s first black president: U.S. President Barack Obama.
A bevy of events are planned: several bilateral meetings, speeches, a state dinner, and a visit to Robben Island where Mandela spent decades in prison. There are also protests against the visit - nearly 1,000 trade unionists, Muslim activists and members of South Africa's Communist party marched to the U.S. embassy in Pretoria Friday, where they denounced U.S. foreign policy.
But missing from Obama’s official agenda is a visit to Mandela himself.
The two men met in person once, in the United States, when Obama was a U.S. Senator. Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said any visit this weekend would be decided by Mandela’s family.
“Essentially, it is a matter that we do not regulate the visits to Madiba. Those are matters that are handled by the family. But I did see statements from the United States that they would not be pressing for that, they would be guided by the family and the health interests of Madiba. So that’s where the matter stands, and it depends, really, on circumstances," said Maharaj.
Mandela’s daughter told the state broadcaster on Thursday that “anything is imminent” with regard to her father’s health. He was admitted to the Pretoria hospital on June 8 for a lung infection. On Sunday, he fell into critical condition, where he remains.