Dakar - US President Barack Obama flew from Senegal to South Africa on Friday to pay homage to his hero Nelson Mandela, after a visit largely overshadowed by the fading health of the anti-apartheid icon.
Mandela's ill health means the two men, who shattered racial boundaries on either side of the Atlantic, will not hold a long-anticipated meeting for the cameras.
Mandela, who turns 95 next month, was rushed to hospital three weeks ago with a recurrent lung infection.
On the eve of Obama's visit, Mandela was said to be in a critical condition, but had stabilised since a scare forced President Jacob Zuma to cancel a trip to neighbouring Mozambique.
Mandela's plight has lent a deeply poignant tone to Obama’s visit, around which the US president has built a three-nation Africa tour, and his plans could yet be disrupted by sudden developments in the ex-president's condition.
The White House says it will defer to the Mandela family and the South African authorities on any aspect of the visit that kicks off on Friday evening when Obama arrives from Senegal, where he spent three days including a poignant visit to Goree Island, a potent symbol of the slave trade.
"The president will be speaking to the legacy of Nelson Mandela and that will be a significant part of our time in South Africa," said US deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes.
A visit by Obama to Mandela's former jail cell on Robben Island, off Cape Town on Sunday would now take on extra "profundity", he said.
During his trip, Obama was also due to host a town hall meeting at the University of Johannesburg's campus in Soweto, the township where Mandela once lived, as part of the US president's Young African Leaders Initiative.
He will visit a community centre with fellow Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and give a speech at the University of Cape Town.
But he will not be greeted warmly by all South Africans. "NObama" demonstrations were planned across the country by a coalition of leftist, pro-Palestinian and anti-drone groups. - AFP