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PRETORIA – Just a few miles from where President Obama was praising Nelson Mandela as a "beacon of the power of principle," the anti-Apartheid icon lay in a hospital bed in critical condition.
According to the White House, out of deference to the family, Obama would not be visiting Mandela during this trip. In fact, perhaps the closest Obama will get to Mandela, is when his Marine One helicopter flew directly over the hospital as he returned from his meetings with South African President Zuma in Pretoria on his way to Johannesburg. He later met with Mandela family members.
Still, amid the growing crowd of well-wishers outside the hospital, the mood was anything but downcast today. They might have been buoyed by the words from President Zuma that Mandela was “stable” and that he was “hoping he was going to improve.”
A young choir belted out song after joyful song. A group from the restive Lonmin platinum mine hung sheets of messages on the hospital fence and said a peaceful prayer. That fence is now filled with posters and flowers and expressions of love and admiration for South Africa’s ailing hero.
We had a few words with Max Sisulu as he went into the hospital. He is the Speaker of the National Assembly and the son of Walter Sisulu, along with Mandela, a leading anti-apartheid advocate. The two spent many years in prison for their struggle, including 18 in the desperate Robben Island jail.
“He is a great icon not just for South Africa but for the whole world,” he told us, “We want to hold on to him as long as possible, as much as possible. We love him dearly.”
Those feelings were shared by most here and around the world. And by President Obama, who spoke today of Mandela's “moral courage.” He will visit Robben Island tomorrow and experience that “courage” close up. Courage being shown again by Mandela himself, as he fights for his life, in a Pretoria intensive care unit.