Obama pays tribute to ailing Madiba's 'moral courage'
EVEN in the silence imposed by infirmity, Nelson Mandela seemed to cast a spell over Barack Obama's first visit to South Africa as US president.
Mr Obama's presence coincided with Mr Mandela's 22nd day in intensive care.
That quirk of fate prevented the first black leader of a global superpower from meeting the first black leader of a country more scarred by racial division than any other.
But Mr Obama took the opportunity to pay homage to Mr Mandela, referring to him by his clan name, Madiba.
"Our thoughts and those of Americans and people all around the world are with Nelson Mandela and his family," he said yesterday.
"Madiba's moral courage, this country's historic transition to a free and democratic nation has been a personal inspiration to me, and has been an inspiration to the world."
Mr Obama spoke after meeting President Jacob Zuma in the colonial splendour of the Union Buildings in the capital, Pretoria, barely half a mile away from the hospital where Mr Mandela now lies.
Eight years ago, Mr Obama had five minutes with Mr Mandela in a Washington hotel suite as a junior senator from Illinois.
Now that the 94-year-old lies stricken, Mr Obama will almost certainly never see him again. Chance has robbed him of any opportunity to build a relationship with a man who he calls a "personal hero".
So Mr Obama spoke with extra feeling when he said: "The outpouring of love that we've seen in recent days shows that the triumph of Nelson Mandela and of this nation speaks to something very deep in the human spirit: the yearning for justice and dignity that transcends boundaries of race and class and faith and country."
Mr Mandela is now on life support, breathing only with the aid of a ventilator. Many relatives have been at his bedside since he was rushed to hospital on June 8, but none has suggested that he is capable of spoken conversation. His eldest surviving daughter, Makaziwe, says only that he responds to touch and tries to open his eyes when loved ones are present.
In deference to this, Mr Obama made no attempt to visit Mr Mandela in hospital, saying the "last thing" he wanted to do was to be "in any way obtrusive".
Instead, the White House said that Mr Obama, visited the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg. He met several members of his family, believed to include two daughters, Makaziwe and Zindziswa.
Mr Obama then spoke to Mr Mandela's wife, Graca, by telephone. He said: "I expressed my hope that Madiba draws peace and comfort from the time that he is spending with loved ones, and also expressed my heartfelt support for the entire family as they work through this difficult time."
Afterwards, Graca Mandela responded by saying: "I am humbled by their comfort and messages of strength and inspiration which I have already conveyed to Madiba."
Last Sunday, the government said that Mr Mandela's health had worsened to the point where he was "critical".
But last night Mr Zuma was still more optimistic, holding out the prospect of Mr Mandela being discharged.