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Obama: I don't need 'photo op' with Mandela

President Obama is heading to South Africa from Senegal as part of his African tour, where Nelson Mandela's daughter says he might visit Mandela if doctors approve. NBC's Keir Simmons reports.

Barack Obama said Friday that he did not need a “photo op” with Nelson Mandela, saying the “last thing” he wanted to do was be intrusive at a time when the anti-apartheid icon’s family are concerned about his health.

However, the president did not rule out a meeting with Mandela, whose ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela said Friday had made a “great improvement” compared to a few days ago.

On Tuesday, Mandela's daughter Zindzi said that her father “opened his eyes and gave me a smile” when she told him Obama was coming.

Speaking about her ex-husband Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela says, 'From what he was a few days ago, there is great improvement' in the former South African president's condition.

Speaking on Air Force One as he flew to South Africa from Senegal, Obama said that “we’ll see what the situation is when we land.”

“I don't need photo op," he said. "The last thing I want to do is be intrusive at a time when the family is concerned” with Mandela’s condition.

He said the main message he wanted to deliver was “profound gratitude” for Mandela’s leadership and to say that “the thoughts and prayers of the American people are with him, his family and his country.”

This message could be delivered to his family and not directly to Mandela, the president said.

On Thursday, Obama said he had already had the "privilege of meeting Madiba [Mandela's clan name] and speaking to him."

"And he's a personal hero, but I don't think I'm unique in that regard," Obama added. "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."

Madikizela-Mandela, speaking outside Mandela's former home in the Johannesburg township of Soweto, said her ex-husband seemed to be getting better.

“I’m not a doctor but I can say that from what he was a few days ago there is great improvement," she said.

When asked by NBC News Special Correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault whether the family would welcome a visit by Obama, Zindzi Mandela said Thursday she wasn't aware of any formal request. However, she added that decision would be left with doctors treating the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Ahead of his arrival in Johannesburg on Friday, an anti-Obama protest was held not far from the hospital where Mandela is being treated with one demonstrator claiming the U.S. president had been a “disappointment.”

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

Protesters protest the visit of President Barack Obama in Pretoria Friday. One said he viewed Obama as a "disappointment" and thought Nelson Mandela would too.

Reuters reported that nearly 1,000 trade unionists, Muslim activists, South African Communist Party members and others marched to the U.S. Embassy where they burned a U.S. flag, calling Obama's foreign policy “arrogant and oppressive.”

"We had expectations of America's first black president. Knowing Africa's history, we expected more,” Khomotso Makola, a 19-year-old law student, told Reuters. He said Obama was a “disappointment, I think Mandela too would be disappointed and feel let down.”

South African critics of Obama have focused in particular on his support for U.S. drone strikes overseas, which they say have killed hundreds of innocent civilians, and his failure to deliver on a pledge to close the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba housing terrorism suspects.

However, Nigerian painter Sanusi Olatunji, 31, had brought portraits of both Mandela and Obama to add to a growing number of flowers, tribute notes and gifts outside the hospital.

“These are the two great men of my lifetime,” he told Reuters. “To me, Mandela is a prophet who brought peace and opportunity. He made it possible for a black man like me to live in a country that was only for whites.”

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View images of civil rights leader Nelson Mandela, who went from anti-apartheid activist to prisoner to South Africa's first black president.

In the latest statement on Mandela’s condition, South African President Jacob Zuma said the 94-year-old was “much better” on Thursday than he had been the previous night. "The medical team continues to do a sterling job," he added.

A statement issued by Zuma’s office said he and Obama would hold “crucial bilateral talks that will take forward relations between the two countries” on Saturday.

“South Africa values its warm and mutually beneficial relationship with the United States immensely. This is a significant visit which will take political, economic and people to people relations between the two countries to a higher level, while also enhancing cooperation between U.S. and the African continent at large,” it said.

The statement noted Obama’s visit was being made as South Africa prepares to celebrate “20 years of freedom” – 1994 saw the first elections in the country in which all its citizens were eligible to vote. Mandela voted for the first time in his life in that year and was elected the country’s first black president, serving until 1999.

“South Africa greatly appreciates the solidarity provided by the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the United States during the struggle for liberation,” the statement said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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