Mandela reported to be improving as Obama arrives in South Africa

People gather with candles for Nelson Mandela  yesterday outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital where he is being treated. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

People gather with candles for Nelson Mandela yesterday outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital where he is being treated. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Sat, Jun 29, 2013, 11:47



With each day, the crowds grow outside the Mediclinic hospital in Pretoria where Nelson Mandela lies gravely ill. They sing and pray and eulogise the man they fondly call “tata”, or “father”, in his native Xhosa.

Ezna Odendaal, a local mother who has childhood memories of the ending of apartheid, brought her two daughters to the colourful shrine of messages, gifts and bouquets, which now stand three-deep at the hospital gates.

“It’s a historic moment. I want them to be part of it.”

Those gathering speak of the spirit of ’94 when Mr Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president. “I think this is going to have the same effect. Politics is one thing, but the people here all want the same thing,” says Ms Odendaal, surveying the mixed-race crowd and then looking to her daughters, aged eight and 10.

“I want them to love the way Mandela loves.”
After a life filled with emotionally charged moments, Mr Mandela may yet supply another occasion of poignancy this weekend after Barack Obama arrived in the country last night.

Throughout his tour of Africa this week, the first black president of the US has been describing as his inspiration the man who similarly broke through the white ceiling of office. Talks were ongoing last night between diplomats and Mr Mandela’s family about a possible visit.

Expectations were raised by reports of an upturn in his health, with his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela saying yesterday there was a “great improvement” compared to a few days ago.

However the US president stressed he did not want to visit just for a “photo op”, and will in any event visit Robben Island where Mr Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in captivity.

Gospel choirs came and went, dozens of white balloons were released into the air and legions of ANC stalwarts were bussed in from the Free State, 300km away.

This provided one sour note as opposition politicians accused the ruling party of trying to politicise the occasion.

The peacemaker and Nobel laureate has always said he doesn’t want a fuss made about his death. “I would just like a simple stone on which is written ‘Mandela’,” he once said.