PRETORIA: Hundreds of people in the South African capital Pretoria demonstrated on Friday against a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, marching near a hospital where anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela lay critically ill.
Flying on board Air Force One from Senegal, Obama paid tribute to Mandela who as South Africa’s first black president led the nation out of apartheid, but said he was not seeking a “photo op” with the ailing statesman.
Mandela, 94, has been in the Pretoria heart clinic with a lung infection for nearly three weeks, his fourth spell in hospital in six months.
A Nobel Peace Prize laureate like Obama, Mandela is admired around the world as a symbol of resistance against injustice and of racial reconciliation. His condition improved over Wednesday night but he remained critical.
Nearly 1,000 trade unionists, Muslim activists and South African Communist Party members marched through the capital to the U.S. Embassy where they burned a U.S. flag in protest, calling Obama’s foreign policy “arrogant and oppressive”.
Muslim activists held prayers in a car park outside the embassy. Leader Imam Sayeed Mohammed told the group: “We hope that Mandela feels better and that Obama can learn from him.”
South African critics of Obama have focused in particular on his support for U.S. drone strikes overseas, which they say have killed hundreds of innocent civilians, and his failure to fulfill a pledge to close the U.S. military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba housing terrorism suspects.
Protesters said the first African-American president should not try to link himself to the anti-apartheid figure.
“Mandela valued human life … Mandela would condemn drone attacks and civilian deaths, Mandela cannot be his hero, he cannot be on that list,” said Yousha Tayob.
“TWO GREAT MEN”
A few blocks away at the Pretoria heart hospital, well-wishers paying tribute to Mandela had words of praise for Obama, who met Mandela in 2005 when he was still a U.S. senator.
Nigerian painter Sanusi Olatunji, 31, had brought portraits of both Mandela and Obama to the wall of the hospital, where flowers, tribute notes and gifts for Madiba, as Mandela is affectionately known, have been piling up.
“These are the two great men of my lifetime,” he said.
“To me, Mandela is a prophet who brought peace and opportunity. He made it possible for a black man like me to live in a country that was only for whites.”
During his weekend trip to Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, Obama is scheduled to visit Robben Island, the former penal colony where Mandela passed 18 years of the 27 years he spent in apartheid prisons.
White House officials have said they will defer to the Mandela family on whether a visit to the hospital would be appropriate.
Obama, who has been in office since 2009, is making his first substantial visit to Africa following a short trip to Ghana at the beginning of his first term.
South Africans held prayer vigils outside the Pretoria hospital and at Mandela’s former Soweto home Thursday night.
But as his health has deteriorated this year, there is a growing realisation among South Africa’s 53 million people that the man who forged their multi-racial “Rainbow Nation” from the ashes of apartheid may be nearing his end.
The possibility of his dying has already generated controversy among the extended Mandela clan.
A dispute between factions of the family over the anti-apartheid leader’s proposed final resting place in the Eastern Cape went legal on Friday when his eldest daughter and a dozen other relatives won a court order against his grandson, Mandla.
SABC, South Africa’s state broadcaster, said the court had ordered Mandla to return the remains of three of Mandela’s children from Mvezo, where Mandla is now chief, to Qunu, Mandela’s ancestral home 20 km (13 miles) away.