US President Barack Obama has met family members of ailing former South African leader Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg after the American president decided against seeing Mandela himself.
The meeting on Saturday took place at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, hours after the president said he was not angling for a “photo op” with the ailing former South African leader.
Earlier, Obama met South African counterpart Jacob Zuma on the second leg of his three-nation Africa tour and paid tribute to the legacy of Mandela.
Obama and Zuma addressed a news conference in Pretoria highlighting the role of Mandela in resisting oppression and white minority rule.
“Our thoughts, and those of Americans, and people all around the world are with Nelson Mandela and his family,” said Obama.
“The triumph of Mandela speaks to something deep in human spirit; a yearning for justice and dignity which transcends … bounds of race.”
Zuma said: “We continue to pray for Madiba’s good health and well being.”
He said as a student Obama “participated actively” in campaigns against apartheid which was dismantled in 1994, paving the way for South Africa’s first multi-racial elections that brought Mandela to power.
Obama flew to South Africa on Friday evening from Senegal, where he began his second extended tour of Africa as US president.
Obama also said he was pleased to be able to take his daughters to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was jailed for 18 of his 27 years’ incarceration under white apartheid rule.
On Africa, he said he firmly believed that “all too often, attention is paid to Africa when there’s a crisis” despite positive developments on the continent.
The two leaders met about a 10-minute drive from the Pretoria hospital where 94-year-old Mandela lies in critical condition.
Mandela’s health is said to be improving after several difficult days.
Mandela, who became South Africa’s first black president after being jailed for 27 years for opposing white minority rule, is suffering from a recurrent lung infection and has been hospitalised three times since last December.
The illness dates back to his years in apartheid-era prisons.
After taking a turn for the worse last weekend, Mandela, who will turn 95 next month, has since shown tentative signs of recovery.
“From what he was a few days ago, there is great improvement, but clinically he is still unwell,” said ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who has visited him regularly in hospital.
She called on the media not to “get carried away” in their reporting on her former husband’s illness, but thanked them for their support.
“Please understand the sensitivities and the feeling of the family,” added the MP, who tirelessly campaigned for Mandela’s release during his imprisonment under apartheid.
“We had no idea of the love out there for us in our particular situation and if sometimes we sound bitter it is because we are dealing with a very difficult situation,” she added.