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. 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 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 an ailing hero. Obama wishes to honor the man who inspired him, mindful he is arriving as South Africans are in mourning over their former president’s condition.
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“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 is being treated in intensive care. “Right now, our main concern is with his well-being, his comfort and with the family’s well-being and comfort.”
Some unfolding events seemed to be exactly what Mandela had hoped to avoid.
Lawyers and magistrates confirmed Friday that 16 Mandela relatives, led by his eldest daughter, Makaziwe Mandela, had filed a lawsuit against a grandson, Mandla Mandela, a tribal chief.
Makaziwe Mandela’s group wants Mandla Mandela to return the bodies of three of Mandela’s children to their original graves in the eastern rural village of Qunu, according to South Africa’s national broadcaster, SABC.
Mandla Mandela acknowledges having reburied the three bodies 13 miles away in the Mvezo village, where he is the chief, and he plans to create a Mandela shrine, according to the South African Press Association.
The anti-apartheid leader built his retirement home in Qunu and was living there until his repeated hospitalizations. Nelson Mandela attended the burial of a son at the family plot in Qunu in 2005, and it was widely expected he would be buried there.
Among some South Africans, the government’s management of news about Mandela stoked speculation it was keeping him alive to facilitate Obama’s trip. The government rejected such rumors.
“Urban legend,” said Mac Maharaj, the presidential spokesman.
Obama, who is accompanied by his wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, arrived from Senegal and was due to travel to Tanzania on Sunday. His long-awaited African tour is intended to emphasize the importance of trade, not aid, for the continent. “Everything we do is designed to make sure that Africa is not viewed as a dependent, as a charity case, but is instead viewed as a partner,” he said Friday.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.