Obama arrives in South Africa on state visit

US president plays down suggestions that he might call on the gravely-ill former president Nelson Mandela, writes Joe Humphreys in Pretoria


US president Barack Obama arrived in South Africa tonight as part of a state visit, playing down suggestions that he might call on the gravely-ill former president Nelson Mandela.

Mr Obama, who is on a three country tour of Africa, said “I don’t need a photo op” with Mandela but a visit to the hospital on Saturday was not ruled out.

The US president will be in Pretoria Saturday before travelling to Cape Town to visit Robben Island where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in captivity.

As Mr Mandela battles for life in the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria, members of his family were in court today in a dispute over his final resting place.

Lawyers acting for the majority of the family received a court order requiring that the bodies of three of Mr Mandela’s children be returned to Qunu, his home village in Eastern Cape.

The bodies were exhumed two years ago by Mandla Mandela, the former president’s eldest grandson, and moved to Mvezo 20 kilometres away where the young Mandela had been planning a major tourist attraction based around a family museum.

Before the case, Mandla Mandela - who is a local chief and MP with the ruling ANC - said he would not oppose the family’s request for the bodies’ return.

The family has tried to present a united front as South Africa is gripped by reports of Mr Mandela’s changing health condition. However, they’ve drawn some public criticism not only about the burial dispute but other court cases about Mr Mandela’s finances and ownership of his image rights.

Family members, friends and public figures continued to visit the hospital today where there were some encouraging reports of Mr Mandela’s health, three weeks short of his 95th birthday.

Speaking later outside Mr Mandela’s former home in Orlando, Soweto, his ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, said: “I’m not a doctor but I can say that from what he was a few days ago there is great improvement.”

Among those paying tribute to Mr Mandela outside the hospital was young Pretoria musician Paul David who had composed a song in his honour. “When I was in school we read a lot of poems and stories and plays about Mandela. He is an inspiration for every generation,” said the 23-year-old.

The crowd swelled thanks to bus-loads of ANC supporters whose arrival this week has drawn some criticism from opposition parties. A prayer rally on Thursday turned into something of a party political broadcast for the ruling party, and yesterday various community groups with links to the ANC joined the chorus of praise.

Sam Shabalala (30), a member of the ANC Youth League, which Mr Mandela helped to set up in 1944, says “we believe we will always have good leadership” despite recent ANC controversies.

Partisan feelings aside, Mr Shabalala - who is a wheelchair user and campaigns on disability issues - says the main reason he was there was to pay tribute to Mandela’s work for young people, children and people with disabilities.

“He has always been a champion of those without a voice.”

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