* Ex-wife Winnie says "great improvement" in his condition
* Obama says does not need "photo op" with ailing statesman
* Pretoria protesters burn U.S. flags, slam Obama policies
* Obama due to tour Mandela's old prison during visit
By Peroshni Govender
PRETORIA, June 28 South Africa's ailing
anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela is doing much better in
hospital, his ex-wife Winnie said on Friday before a visit by
U.S. President Barack Obama that will include a personal homage
to the globally admired statesman.
The faltering health of the first black president of South
Africa, a revered symbol of racial reconciliation, has drawn
world attention since the 94-year-old was rushed to hospital
with a recurring lung infection nearly three weeks ago.
Earlier this week, the government reported Mandela's frail
condition had turned critical, but since Thursday President
Jacob Zuma has reported that his health is improving.
"I'm not a doctor, but I can say that from what he was a few
days ago, there is great improvement," Mandela's ex-wife, Winnie
Madikizela-Mandela, told reporters outside Mandela's former home
in the Johannesburg township of Soweto.
But, she added, he remained "clinically unwell".
Heading for Johannesburg aboard Air Force One from Senegal,
Obama paid tribute to Mandela for the way he led South Africa
out of apartheid after years of struggle, but he said he did not
need a "photo op" with the former president.
During his weekend trip to Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape
Town, his second stop of a three-nation Africa tour, Obama is
scheduled to visit Robben Island, where Mandela passed 18 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 to see Madiba,
as he is affectionately known, would be appropriate.
While well-wishers and journalists crowded outside the
hospital in the capital Pretoria where Mandela is being treated,
a few blocks away, hundreds of demonstrators protested against
Obama's visit, some burning U.S. flags.
Nearly 1,000 trade unionists, Muslim activists and South
African Communist Party members marched to the U.S. Embassy
shouting slogans denouncing Obama's foreign policy as "arrogant
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 fulfil
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"
Not far away at the Pretoria heart hospital, some of the
people 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."
Obama, 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.
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 Mandela'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.