Obama Unsure He'll See Mandela During South Africa Visit

President Barack Obama said he’ll defer to the wishes of Nelson Mandela’s family in deciding whether to visit the 94-year-old anti-apartheid leader in the hospital, where he is in critical condition.

“I don’t need a photo-op, and 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,” Obama told reporters traveling with him today en route to South Africa, the second country of a three-nation African tour. He arrived there this evening from Senegal and has no public events on his schedule for the rest of the night.

South Africans are maintaining a vigil for Mandela, the nation’s first black president, who’s in critical condition in a Pretoria hospital where he has spent the past three weeks battling a lung infection.

Obama considers Mandela a personal hero for his fight against apartheid policies, and has said the former South African president was an inspiration for his own activism.

Obama met Mandela once, in 2005, in Washington, when the U.S president was a Democratic senator from Illinois.

Obama told reporters today that the message he’d deliver to Mandela or his family would be one of “simply profound gratitude for his leadership for all these years.”

Concern over Mandela’s health heightened after President Jacob Zuma canceled a trip to a regional summit in Mozambique late on June 26. Mandela’s condition improved overnight and was stable, though still critical, the presidency said yesterday.

Mandela Vigil

Crowds have gathered outside the hospital to deliver cards and flowers, as well as at Mandela’s homes in Johannesburg and the village of Qunu in the southeast of the country.

Obama has to maintain a delicate balance in continuing his trip while attention is focused on Mandela’s condition, Daryl Glaser, a politics professor at the University of Witwatersrand, said.

“Diplomatic life has to go on,” he said in a telephone interview from Johannesburg today. “There was no obviously right thing to do.”

The president’s trip, which is overshadowed by the attention drawn by Mandela, an international icon, has been conducted with sensitivity, Glaser said. “He will no doubt say all the right things.”

Obama’s arrival is of some importance to Zuma, according to Glaser. The nation is seeking to maintain good relations with the West to expand investment and tourism.

South Africa also is an important point of engagement for the U.S. in Africa, he said.

“South Africa despite all its problems will still be one of the countries that are selected as an example of a functioning democracy, which I think is symbolically important for the U.S.,” Glaser said. “China’s interest in Africa gives the U.S. an incentive to remain involved in the region.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.