By Faith Karimi
(CNN) — President Barack Obama and the first lady will meet privately with Nelson Mandela’s family Saturday, but they will not visit the ailing anti-apartheid icon at the hospital.
The president and Michelle Obama will not see him “out of deference to Nelson Mandela’s peace and comfort, and the family’s wishes,” the White House said in a statement.
Obama starts his first full day of activities in South Africa, a nation where hearts are heavy over the poor health of the revered statesman.
His visit to Africa’s biggest economy is part of a three-nation trip that started in Senegal, and will end in Tanzania next week.
A meeting between the two would have had historic significance.
Like Obama, Mandela broke through racial barriers to become the first black president of South Africa. The two have met before, but that was prior to Obama’s election to the highest political office in the United States. He was a senator at the time.
Mandela retains massive popularity despite his retirement from the presidency in 1999.
He was hospitalized in critical condition with a recurring lung infection three weeks ago, and is clinging to life at a Pretoria hospital.
Though his condition has improved, his health remains delicate, according to his ex-wife, Winnie Mandela. Government spokesman Mac Maharaj has said he remains critical but stable.
As his condition has deteriorated, South Africans have gathered outside the hospital, praying, lighting candles and leaving notes for the man they refer to as “tata,” the Xhosa word for father.
Obama, who has hailed him as a hero, had not ruled out a visit to see him. However, he had said it is up to the family.
“I don’t need a photo op, and the last thing I want to do is to be in any way obtrusive at a time when the family is concerned with Nelson Mandela’s condition,” he said Friday.
Mandela became an international figure while enduring 27 years in prison for fighting apartheid, South Africa’s system of racial segregation. He was elected the nation’s first black president in 1994, four years after he was freed.
Even as he has faded from the spotlight, he remains popular worldwide as an icon of peaceful reconciliation.
“If and when he passes from this place, one thing I think we’ll all know is that his legacy is one that will linger on throughout the ages,” Obama said.
The trip aims to bolster investment opportunities for the U.S., address development issues such as food security and health, and promote democracy. It comes as China aggressively engages the continent, pouring billions of dollars into it and replacing the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner.
Obama’s schedule Saturday includes an arrival ceremony in Pretoria and a news conference with his South African counterpart, Jacob Zuma.
A day later, he will visit Robben Island, where Mandela spent a majority of his decades in prison.
CNN’s Todd Sperry contributed to this report.