Obama Meets Family of Ailing Hero Mandela

Tributes to Mandela outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital, in Pretoria, where former President Nelson Mandela is being treated, June 27, 2013.
Eva-Lotta Jansson/Corbis

U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday met the family of his "inspiration" Nelson Mandela but was unable to visit the anti-apartheid legend who remains critically ill in hospital.

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Despite tentative signs of an improvement in the condition of the father of multi-racial South Africa, Obama decided not to visit Mandela during his visit for fearing of disturbing his "peace and comfort".

Instead Obama met privately with some relatives of the revered leader including two daughters and several grandchildren and spoke by telephone with Mandela's wife Graca Machel.

"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," Obama said, using Mandela's clan name.

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Machel said she had "drawn strength from the support" offered by the Obama family.

"I am humbled by their comfort and messages of strength and inspiration which I have already conveyed to Madiba."

Speaking earlier in Pretoria, where 94-year-old Mandela lay fighting for his life in a nearby hospital, Obama praised the "moral courage" of South Africa's first black president.

"The struggle here against apartheid, for freedom, Madiba's moral courage, his country's historic transition to a free and democratic nation, has been a personal inspiration to me. It has been an inspiration to the world," Obama said after talks with President Jacob Zuma.

"The outpouring of love that we've seen in recent days shows that the triumph of Nelson Mandela and 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," he added.

Obama said before arriving he did not need "a photo-op" with Mandela, whom he meet briefly in 2005, and the White House on Saturday ruled out a meeting between the two men.

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"Out of deference to Nelson Mandela's peace and comfort and the family's wishes, they will not be visiting the hospital," the official said.

Obama's three-nation tour is aimed at changing perceptions that he has neglected Africa since his election in 2008, while also countering China's growing economic influence in the resource-rich continent.

But it has been overshadowed by the illness of his fellow Nobel peace laureate, who has been in intensive care for more than three weeks.

Zuma said Mandela remained in "critical but stable" condition, expressing hope that he would improve.

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