Obama to defer to Mandela family on possible visit
US President Barack Obama will defer to Nelson Mandela's family on whether he will visit the ailing anti-apartheid icon during his trip to South Africa next week, a top aide said Friday.
The possibility of a meeting between the first black presidents of both South Africa and the United States has been hotly anticipated for years.
But the declining health of Mandela, 94, who has been fighting a lung infection, and Obama's failure to visit South Africa until his second term, have left the prospect in doubt.
"We ... are going to be very deferential to the Mandela family in terms of any interaction the president may have with the Mandela family or Nelson Mandela," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy US national security advisor.
"Ultimately, we want whatever is in the best interests of his health and the peace of mind of the Mandela family," said Rhodes.
"We will be in touch with them. If he has an opportunity to see the family in some capacity, that's certainly something that we may do."
Mandela has spent 14 days in a Pretoria hospital, where he has been in a serious condition with a lung infection.
Former South African president Thabo Mbeki said Thursday that Mandela's health is improving, and that he is not going to "die tomorrow" despite a growing acceptance in his nation of his mortality.
Obama will stay overnight in Johannesburg and Cape Town during his trip, and plans to visit Robben Island, where Mandela was once imprisoned.
Rhodes said that Obama's visit to the island, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison, would be an "important and powerful symbol" of the president's respect for Mandela, one of his personal heroes.
Obama met Mandela soon after he was elected a senator in 2005, when the former South African president was in Washington.
The two have spoken several times since on the telephone.
Obama's wife, Michelle, was able to pay a visit to the anti-apartheid icon during her trip to Africa two years ago, and she said it was the most moving moment of her visit.
Obama will leave Washington on Wednesday, June 26, on the first leg of a three nation tour meant to emphasize economic potential and democratic development, in east, south and western sub Saharan Africa.
The president will stop first in Senegal, where he will meet President Macky Sall and pay an emotive visit to Goree Island and a museum and memorial to Africans caught up in the slave trade.
Then he will move onto Johannesburg, South Africa on June 29 and the next day in Pretoria will hold talks and a press conference with President Jacob Zuma.
Later, Obama will hold a town hall meeting with young Africans at the Soweto campus of the University of Johannesburg.
On June 30, Obama will move onto Cape Town where his events include the Robben Island visit and a roundtable with business leaders which will include senior members of the president's economic team.
The final leg of Obama's journey will take him to Tanzania, where his program includes talks and a press conference with President Jakaya Kikwete and a visit to the Ubungo power plant.
Obama will also lay a wreath at a memorial to 11 people killed in the US embassy bombing in 1998.
There is one glaring omission on Obama's itinerary -- Kenya, the homeland of his late father, where he still has living relatives.
White House officials said that uncertainty following Kenya's elections earlier this year and the fact that Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is facing trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for allegedly orchestrating deadly violence in 2007-8 following previous polls had nixed a possible visit.
"It just wasn't the best time for the president to travel to Kenya at this point," said Rhodes, adding that the country retained a "special place" in the president's heart.