Nelson Mandela an inspiration to world, says Barack Obama

The US President meets family of South Africa's ailing former leader

The condition of the former South African leader Nelson Mandela appeared to take a turn for the better yesterday, as President Jacob Zuma spoke of his "hope [that] very soon he will be out of hospital". Such a remark, concerning a 94-year-old man lately rumoured to be on life-support, though responding to touch, struck a sudden upbeat note that caught many observers by surprise. The only reliable, if vague, appraisal of Mr Mandela's health is that, three weeks after being admitted to hospital with a lung infection, he remains "critical, but stable", with any other reports being unconfirmed.

And so the hovering media must continue their waiting, a ghoulish spectacle on one level, but an understandable one. Mr Mandela may have officially led only the country of his birth, but he was, in moral authority, as close to a president of the world as we are ever likely to see. Millions are poised to pay homage, if only on social media.

Certainly President Barack Obama showed he was aware of the sensitivities to be observed. He declined to bring the entourage and media that always accompany him clattering into the hospital, and instead met privately with two of Mr Mandela's daughters and several grandchildren in Johannesburg for half an hour yesterday afternoon.

Since starting his Africa tour in Senegal on Wednesday, President Obama has paid fulsome tribute to the man globally admired as a symbol both of struggle against injustice and for racial reconciliation. Yesterday, he encouraged leaders in Africa and around the world to follow Mr Mandela's example of country before self. Speaking at a news conference with President Zuma in the midst of a week-long tour that will also include a stop in Tanzania, Mr Obama said: "We as leaders occupy these spaces temporarily and we don't get so deluded that we think the fate of our country doesn't depend on how long we stay in office."

The US President referred to Mr Mandela by his clan name as he praised South Africa's historic transition from white racist rule to a shining beacon for the world. He said: "The struggle here against apartheid for freedom, Madiba's moral courage, this country's historic transition to a free and democratic nation has been a personal inspiration to me; it has been an inspiration to the world. The outpouring of love that we've seen in recent days shows that the triumph of Nelson Mandela and this nation speaks to something very deep in the human spirit, the yearning for justice and dignity that transcends boundaries of race and class and faith and country. That's what Nelson Mandela represents, that's what South Africa at its best represents to the world, and that's what brings me back here."

Mr Obama also paid tribute to South Africa's fight against apartheid by visiting the Soweto area for a town-hall meeting with students at the University of Johannesburg. At least 176 young people were killed in Soweto township 27 years ago this month during a youth protest against the apartheid regime's ban against teaching local Bantu languages. The Soweto Uprising catalysed international support against apartheid.

Mr Obama has called Nelson Mandela a "personal hero". The President will wrap up his South Africa stay today, when he plans to give a sweeping speech on US-Africa policy at the University of Cape Town and take his family to Robben Island to tour the prison where Mr Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years behind bars. Mr Obama has been before, but said he wishes to bring his daughters back to learn its lessons.