* Anti-apartheid hero remains critical in Pretoria clinic
* Obama will defer to Mandela family on possible visit
* Attention on Mandela's plight as U.S. president expected
By Peroshni Govender
PRETORIA, June 28 South Africans protesting a
visit to their country by U.S. President Barack Obama rallied on
Friday a few blocks from well-wishers at a hospital in Pretoria
where anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela is critically ill.
Obama, on a three-nation tour of Africa, was due to arrive
in South Africa on Friday with White House officials saying they
will defer to Mandela's family on whether the first
African-American president of the United States will visit South
Africa's first black president.
Mandela, 94, is fighting a lung infection that has left him
in a critical condition and in hospital for nearly three weeks.
His fourth hospitalisation in six months has focused
attention in South Africa and globally on the faltering health
of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who is admired as a symbol of
resistance against injustice and of racial reconciliation.
President Jacob Zuma has said Mandela's condition improved
over Wednesday night but he remained critical.
About 200 trade unionists, student activists and South
African Communist Party members gathered in the capital Pretoria
to protest Obama's visit this weekend, calling his foreign
policy "arrogant, selfish and oppressive".
"We had expectations of America's first black president.
Knowing Africa's history, we expected more," said Khomotso
Makola, a 19-year-old law student.
"He has come as a disappointment, I think Mandela too would
be disappointed and feel let down," Makola said.
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
deliver on a pledge to close the U.S. military detention centre
at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba housing terrorism suspects.
"TWO GREAT MEN"
A few blocks away at the Pretoria heart hospital where
Mandela is being cared for, well-wishers paying tribute to the
legendary retired statesman 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.
Starting off his Africa trip in Senegal on Wednesday, Obama
praised Mandela as "a personal hero".
"If and when he passes from this place, one thing I think
we'll all know is that his legacy is one that will linger on
throughout the ages," he told reporters in Dakar.
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 meetings and vigils outside the
Pretoria hospital and at Mandela's former Soweto home through
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 will not be with them forever.