JOHANNESBURG — Nelson Mandela always wanted to go quietly. Despite his stature as a global icon, he sought a dignified withdrawal from public life in recent years; privately he told aides of his desire for a quiet funeral, stripped of pomp.
That is not how it is happening now. With Mandela in critical condition in a hospital from a serious lung infection, and as President Obama arrived Friday for a state visit, the country was in the grip of passions, ceremony, and controversy as its people come to terms with finally bidding Mandela farewell.
Outside the hospital gates, South Africans of all races prayed, sang, and dropped flowers for their revered father figure. Less harmoniously, a simmering family feud over his funeral arrangements burst into public view. A 65-year-old woman claiming to be his illegitimate daughter stepped forward, demanding to be let into the hospital to meet him.
In the evening, Obama entered the fray, faced with a delicate diplomatic balancing act involving statesmanship, policy, and respect for a fading hero. Obama, who had planned weeks ago to visit Mandela during this trip, wishes to honor the man who inspired his career in politics, mindful that he is arriving as South Africans are in mourning over their beloved former president’s condition.
“I don’t need a photo-op,” Obama said while on his way to South Africa, where he landed just a few miles from the Pretoria hospital where Mandela has been lying in intensive care. “Right now, our main concern is with his well-being, his comfort, and with the family’s well-being and comfort.”
At any other time, Obama’s arrival would have been be a symbolically potent moment with resonance for both countries: America’s first black president visiting a nation that only two decades ago shook off the yoke of white minority rule.
But for South Africans, their hearts, if not their eyes, were focused on something else.
“This trip is overshadowed by Nelson Mandela’s illness,” said Justice Malala, a political commentator and columnist. “Its impact will be blunted because people’s attention is elsewhere.”
Some unfolding events seemed to be exactly what Mandela had hoped to avoid. A court hearing in a provincial town on Friday exposed a bitter family rift over arrangements for his funeral.
Mandela has long been painfully aware of the divides within his family, and on Friday lawyers and magistrates confirmed that 16 Mandela relatives, led by his eldest daughter, Makaziwe Mandela, had filed a lawsuit against a grandson, Mandla Mandela, a tribal chief.
A report from South Africa’s national broadcaster pointed to a macabre squabble at work: The plaintiffs want to compel Mandla Mandela to rebury three relatives, who had been exhumed and moved some years ago from the family graveyard at Qunu, Nelson Mandela’s home village, back in their original graves.
The court action appeared to stem from an argument over where Nelson Mandela himself should be buried. Mandla Mandela prefers a site at the headquarters of his tribal village of Mvezo, where Nelson Mandela was born; the rest of the family wants him to be buried at Qunu, where he grew up.
Among some South Africans, the government’s careful management of news about Mandela even stoked speculation that it was somehow keeping him alive in order to facilitate Obama’s trip. The government flatly rejected such rumors.
In South Africa, Obama plans to salute Mandela’s life with a visit on Sunday to Robben Island, the prison where Mandela spent 18 years in a tiny cell, now a somber tourist attraction inhabited mainly by penguins.
For South Africans, however, the US president’s visit was not the biggest story of the day. The tide of public worry has focused on the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria, where a wall of handwritten notes and balloons has become a shrine of sorts to Mandela.