US President Barack Obama plans to meet relatives of former South African leader Nelson Mandela on Saturday, but does not intend to visit the critically ill anti-apartheid activist he has called a “personal hero”.
The White House gave no details in a statement issued when Mr Obama arrived in South Africa as part of a week-long tour of the continent, saying simply that he and his wife, Michelle, would offer their thoughts and prayers at the family's difficult time.
"Out of deference to Nelson Mandela's peace and comfort and the family's wishes, they will not be visiting the hospital," the statement said.
Mr Obama told reporters on the flight to South Africa on Friday that he was grateful that he, his wife and daughters had had a chance to meet Mr Mandela previously.
A photo of his introduction to Mr Mandela in 2005 hangs in his personal office at the White House - their only meeting, when Mr Obama was a senator.
"I don't need a photo op," he said. "The last thing I want to do is to be in any way obtrusive at a time when the family is concerned about Nelson Mandela's condition."
Mr Obama will be just a couple of miles from the hospital where the 94-year-old has been for three weeks after being admitted with a lung infection. The US president has a bilateral meeting and news conference with President Jacob Zuma at the Union Buildings, where Mr Mandela was inaugurated as the country's first black president in 1994 after 27 years behind bars under racist rule.
The US president has said the imprisoned activist's willingness to risk his life for the cause of equal rights helped inspire his own political activism. He said his message during the visit will draw on the lessons of Mr Mandela's life, with a message that "Africa's rise will continue" if its people are unified instead of divided by tribe, race or religion.
"I think the main message we'll want to deliver, if not directly to him but to his family, is simply a profound gratitude for his leadership all these years and that the thoughts and prayers of the American people are with him and his family and his country," Mr Obama said on his flight into the country.
The US leader will also pay tribute to the fight against apartheid by visiting the Soweto area and meeting students at the University of Johannesburg. At least 176 young people were killed in Soweto township 27 years ago this month during a youth protest against the apartheid regime's ban against teaching local Bantu languages. The Soweto Uprising catalysed international support against apartheid, and June is now recognised as Youth Month in South Africa.
The university plans to bestow an honourary law degree on the US president, while protesters are planning demonstrations against US policy on issues including the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the war in Afghanistan and global warming. Hundreds marched to the US Embassy yesterday, carrying signs that read: "No, You Can't Obama," a message inspired by Mr Obama's "Yes, we can" campaign slogan.
Mr Obama, the son of an African man, has been trying to inspire the continent's youth to become civicly active and part of a new democratically minded generation. He hosted young leaders from more than 40 African countries at the White House in 2010 and challenged them to bring change to their countries by standing up for freedom, openness and peaceful disagreement.
He will conclude his visit to South Africa tomorrow, when he plans to give a sweeping speech on US-Africa policy at the University of Cape Town and take his family to Robben Island to tour the prison where Mr Mandela spent 18 years.
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