Nelson Mandela is “a hero for the world”, US president Barack Obama said on Thursday, adding that his thoughts are with the former South African president and his family as he remains critical.
“He is a personal hero, but I’m not unique in that regard,” the US president said. “I think he’s a hero for the world.”
Speaking in Senegal, his first stop on a six-day tour of Africa, Obama also recounted the impact Mandela had made during his early years in political life. “When I was in law school in 1991, to see Nelson Mandela step forward after 27 years of captivity and not only help usher in democracy but as importantly also say ‘I embrace my former captors and my former oppressors’ gave me a sense of what is possible in the world when righteous people work together on behalf of a larger cause,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mandela was said to be showing “great improvement” on Friday. The anti-apartheid icon who turns 95 next month has been in hospital for three weeks for a recurrent lung disease dating from his years in prison.
Mandela’s strengthening health raised the possibility of a meeting between the two men, who shattered racial boundaries on either side of the Atlantic.
Obama is due to leave Senegal and travel to South Africa on Friday with his family. He plans to visit Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned.
But Obama said he would not press for a much-awaited meeting with Mandela. “We’ll see what the situation is when we land. I do not need a photo op,” Obama said.
But there has been speculation that if Mandela dies, Obama will reschedule his visit to South Africa and return at a more appropriate time.
(With agency inputs)