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Ailing Mandela opens eyes, smiles on hearing of Obama's South Africa trip

The family of the 94-year-old former South African president gathered at his home, reportedly after an urgent call made by his children. Mandela remains in critical condition and is hospitalized for a 17th day.

PRETORIA, South Africa - Nelson Mandela "opened his eyes" and smiled after being told of President Barack Obama's imminent visit to South Africa, his daughter said Tuesday, adding to speculation that the two men might meet.

The 94-year-old remains in a critical condition, South Africa’s government said Tuesday as relatives gathered at his home for a family meeting that local media reports described as “urgent.”

The anti-apartheid campaigner and democracy icon has been in hospital with a lung infection since June 8. His condition was downgraded over the weekend from "serious but stable" to “critical.”

Obama is due to leave Wednesday for Senegal, his first stop in a tour of Africa, before heading to South Africa on Friday.

Officials have said it is up to Mandela's family to decide if the former leader is well enough to meet the president, and no meeting is scheduled.

Zindzi Mandela said Tuesday that she had said to her father: "Obama is coming."

"He opened his eyes and gave me a smile," she said.

She was speaking after relatives and chief members of Mandela's clan gathered for a meeting at his rural home in Qunu, Eastern Cape province, on Tuesday morning.

Among those who arrived at the homestead were his grandson Mandla Mandela and other family members, Thanduxolo Mandela, Ndaba Mandela, and Ndileka Mandela.

A South Africa Press Association correspondent said the meeting followed an “urgent call” reportedly made by the former president’s children and quoted Napilisi Mandela, an elder in the Mandela family, as saying the meeting was being called “to discuss delicate matters.”

EPA

South African Police Services trainees bring flowers and messages of support at the entrance to the Medi-Clinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa on Tuesday.

In an interview with CNN on Monday, Mandela’s other daughter, Makaziwe, said she believed her father was “at peace with himself.”

Asked if the family should “let him go,” she said they wouldn't because he had not asked them to.

Tuesday’s news of Mandela's unchanged condition deepened the sense of gloom among a 50-strong crowd of well-wishers gathered outside the Pretoria hospital where Mandela is being treated.

Mingling with television reporters, they strained to hear the details of reports on the health of a man they knows as “Tata Mandala” - Father Mandela.

The perimeter wall of the hospital is now plastered with goodwill messages. Early Tuesday, more than 100 white doves were released – a symbol of peace for the Nobel Peace Prize winner.

“It’s a mix of emotion, because he’s feeling pain. But on the other side we want him to survive”, said Nhlanhla Mhlong. “If he cannot survive then we want him to be released from the pain.”

It is a deeply painful time for those closest to Nelson Mandela.

Mac Maharaj was jailed alongside Mandela at Robben Island. Now, as one of the former leader’s official press spokesmen, he must field calls about his friend’s frail health.

“I have to make a conscious effort in this job to put aside my feelings,” Maharaj said.

NBC News' Cheryll Simpson and Alastair Jamieson contributed to this report.

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