Mr. Mandela has been ailing for several months, but his family has made tentative but affirmative signals that the two men – the first blacks to lead their respective countries – could have a moment.
If Mr. Obama does makes a bedside visit, the family has indirectly suggested, it needn't be a media or political carnival, but can take place on the grounds that it might be meaningful to Mandela himself.
The 94-year-old leader of the African National Congress is one of the more significant human rights leaders of the past century, helping guide a peaceful transition away from white rule in South Africa. Mandela inspired a politically maturing 19-year-old Barry Obama at Occidental College in California, the president has been reminding the world.
Mandela’s daughter Zindzi Mandela-Motlhajwa said this week her father visibly brightened, opening his eyes and smiling from his hospital bed, when told that Obama was soon to visit the country.
Over the past five days, Mandela's condition has been swathed in rumors and confusion, though yesterday, South African president Jacob Zuma said the elderly figure's condition had stabilized.
“We’ll see what the situation is like when we land,” Obama told reporters aboard Air Force One this morning, as the White House left Senegal for South Africa. Obama's three-nation visit to Africa will end next week in Tanzania, a tour that is meant to show American interest in trade and civil society on the continent.
The White House doesn’t want a gauche Mandela media circus at a time the world press is being criticized for sensationalizing the health of the former leader and conducting a macabre watch outside his hospital. Ms. Mandela-Motlhajwa said her father was showing his qualities as a fighter by confounding some of the rumors of his demise, including a media report Wednesday that he had died.
"I think the main message we'll want to deliver, if not directly to him, but to his family, is simply profound gratitude for his leadership," Obama said today.
The two men did meet briefly and quite spontaneously at the Four Seasons hotel in Washington. At the time, Obama was the senator from Illinois, and, en route to another meeting but knowing Mandela was at the hotel, suddenly redirected his car.
Whether or not a direct meeting takes place, Obama will likely visit Mandela’s family.
The president is also scheduled in two days to visit Robben Island, the prison where Mandela was incarcerated for the majority of the 27 years he spent in prison.
On Sunday, Obama gives a major address at the University of Capetown on Sunday. The speech comes nearly 50 years after martyred American political figure Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a civil rights champion, addressed students there, saying in 1966 that: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice … he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and … those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Today Obama is scheduled for a “town hall” at the University of Johannesburg in Soweto, where he will meet with “the next generation of African leaders in civil society,” as White House spokesman Ben Rhodes described it. The forum is expected to be one in which the American president also takes up the meaning of Mandela both in South Africa and to the larger world.