US President Barack Obama paid tribute to ailing former South African leader Nelson Mandela on Saturday as an inspiration to himself and to the world. The transition to freedom and democracy in South Africa continues to shine as a beacon, Obama said.

Speaking in Pretoria as part of his week-long visit to Africa, Obama said: "My thoughts and those of Americans and people all around the world are with Nelson Mandela and his family, and all South Africans. The struggle here, against apartheid, for freedom, Madiba's (Mandela'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, and it continues to be, in so many regions that are divided by conflict, sectarian disputes, religious or ethnic wars, to see what happened in South Africa, the power of principle, and people standing up for what's right, I think continues to shine as a beacon."

obama south africa

Obama paid tribute to the "inspirational" Madiba

Obama added: "The outpouring of love we have 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 can represent to the world."

The South African government has said the condition of Mandela, 94, is stable but remains critical. He was admitted to a Pretoria hospital three weeks ago with a recurring lung infection. Obama plans to make a private visit to relatives of Mr Mandela later today but does not intend to see the unwell former leader, who became South Africa's first democratically elected president in 1994 after spending 27 years in prison.

South African President Jacob Zuma said he was hoping that Mr Mandela could soon be discharged from hospital.
He said the nation continued to pray for Mr Mandela's health and added: "We hope very soon he will be out of hospital." Obama spent time on Saturday with two of Mandela's daughters and eight of his grandchildren at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, part of the former president's foundation.

Obama said he reaffirmed the profound impact that Mandela's legacy has had in building a free South Africa, and in inspiring people around the world - including himself. "That's a legacy that we must all honour in our own lives," he said. He also spoke by telephone with Graca Machel, Mandela's wife, while she stayed at his bedside in the hospital.

She said she drew strength from the call and had conveyed the couple's messages of strength and inspiration to Mandela.

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  • Barack Obama

    U.S. President Barack Obama gestures during a news conference with South African President Jacob Zuma, not pictured, at the Union Building on Saturday, June 29, 2013, in Pretoria, South Africa. The president is in South Africa, embarking on the second leg of his three-country African journey. The visit comes at a poignant time, with former South African president and anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela ailing in a Johannesburg hospital. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • Barack Obama, Jacob Zuma

    U.S. President Barack Obama, left, gestures during a news conference with South African President Jacob Zuma at the Union Building on Saturday, June 29, 2013, in Pretoria, South Africa. The president is in South Africa, embarking on the second leg of his three-country African journey. The visit comes at a poignant time, with former South African president and anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela ailing in a Johannesburg hospital. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • U.S. President Barack Obama and South African President Jacob Zuma, not pictured, address a press conference following their meeting at Union Building in Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday June 29, 2013.(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

  • U.S. President Barack Obama, centre, and South African President Jacob Zuma, obscured behind left, walk to address a press conference following their meeting at Union Building in Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday June 29, 2013.(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

  • Barack Obama, Jacob Zuma

    U.S. President Barack Obama, centre right, arrives for a news conference with South African President Jacob Zuma, centre left, at the Union Building on Saturday, June 29, 2013, in Pretoria, South Africa. The visit comes at a poignant time, with former South African president and anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela ailing in a Johannesburg hospital. The White House issued a statement Saturday that President Barack Obama plans to visit privately with relatives of former South African President Nelson Mandela, but doesn't intend to see the critically ill anti-apartheid activist he has called a "personal hero." (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • U.S. President Barack Obama and South African President Jacob Zuma address a press conference following their meeting at Union Building in Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday June 29, 2013.(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

  • U.S. President Barack Obama and South African President Jacob Zuma address a press conference following their meeting at Union Building in Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday June 29, 2013.(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)