South Africa on Friday readied itself for a much-anticipated visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, though the visit has been overshadowed by the declining health of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela. The former president has remained in critical condition for six days at a Pretoria hospital, prompting an outpouring of support.
An all-night vigil outside Mandela’s hospital mushroomed Thursday night, as visitors poured in to light candles and pray for the health of the former president. The concern for Mandela, 94, overshadows another major event in South Africa: the Friday night arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama.
For him, too, a bevy of grand events are planned: several bilateral meetings, speeches, a state dinner, and a visit to Robben Island where Mandela spent nearly two decades in prison. Protesters also plan to greet the U.S. president Saturday morning with their objections to his visit -- one main protest group said it opposes Obama's foreign and military policies.
But many South Africans have expressed support for the American president, saying they see something of their beloved leader in Obama. Both men were the first black president of their country, and both were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
South African presidency spokesman Mac Maharaj said it is uncertain whether Obama will visit Mandela -- whom he refers to by his clan name, Madiba.
“Essentially, it is a matter that we do not regulate the visits to Madiba. Those are matters that are handled by the family," Maharaj explained. "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.”
Maharaj added that the nation was excited about Obama’s visit, as the U.S. is one of South Africa’s top trade partners and a valued ally.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ex-wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela, holds a candle during a prayer service for the ailing Mandela at a church in Johannesburg, July 5, 2013.
Ndaba Mandela (R), one of former South African President Nelson Mandela's grandsons, and an unidentified companion leave the Mediclinic Heart Hospital, where the former president is being treated, in Pretoria, July 5, 2013.
Well-wishers pray in support of ailing former South African President Nelson Mandela in front of the Mediclinic Heart Hospital where he is being treated in Pretoria, July 5, 2013.
Daughter, Makaziwe Mandela, leaves after visiting the Mediclinic Heart Hospital where former South African President Nelson Mandela is being treated in Pretoria, July 5, 2013.
Well-wishers post messages outside the hospital where ailing former President Nelson Mandela is being treated in Pretoria, July 5, 2013.
A well-wisher weeps as he pays his respects outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital, where ailing former South African President Nelson Mandela is being treated in Pretoria, July 1, 2013.
Boys hold a candle as they pay their respects outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital, where ailing former South African President Nelson Mandela is being treated in Pretoria, July 1, 2013.
Men stand next to a banner covered with portraits of Nelson Mandela to a wall outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria, June 28, 2013.
A well-wisher pays respect to ailing former South African President Nelson Mandela outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria, June 27, 2013.
Granddaughters Zaziwe Dlamini-Manaway and Tukwini Mandela are surrounded by the media outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria, June 27, 2013.
Children release 95 white balloons to mark the upcoming birthday of ailing former South African President Nelson Mandela outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria, June 27, 2013.
But throughout, the fate of the visit has hinged on Mandela's condition. His 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.
The ruling African National Congress said they would start holding daily prayer sessions for Mandela. Spokesman Keith Khoza said the party urged people to pray for his full recovery.
The ANC’s mark was also all over the visitors at Thursday’s hospital vigil. Many wore ANC shirts. The ANC faces national elections next year.
Maharaj, who is also an ANC member, said the confluence of party and personality is not unusual or wrong -- after all, he said, Mandela was the party’s first leader to serve as South African president, and Mandela has reiterated his undying loyalty to the party.
Mmusi Maimane, a spokesman for the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said they would not make Mandela’s ailing health into a political issue.
“We like, any other South African, are concerned first and foremost about Nelson Mandela’s health," Maimane said. "And that is our focus … our thoughts are with his family. And at best, that is what we are focusing on and on nothing else.”
And so, ultimately, is the world. Well-wishers have sent letters and tweets from around the world, the piles of flowers are growing, and the world waits, again, for news on Mandela.