Hillary Rodham Clinton visits ailing icon Nelson Mandela in South Africa

August 6, 2012

Nelson Mandela, retired from public life and largely confined to his house, smiled when he saw Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday, but the 94-year-old Nobel laureate appeared very frail.

“That’s a beautiful smile!” Clinton exclaimed after she and a small group of aides flew from Johannesburg to pay respects to Mandela in his home village, Qunu. Clinton is on an eight-nation African visit.

Photographers and a reporter were allowed to see a few moments of the hour-long meeting in Mandela’s comfortable house.

Mandela rarely appears in public now, and even meetings at home with anyone outside his family are growing rare. The Clinton visit had the air of a fond farewell.

Mandela’s single term as president, from 1994 to 1999, coincided with the Clinton presidency in the United States. Former President Bill Clinton and then-first lady Hillary Clinton saw Mandela often. As first lady, Clinton attended Mandela’s inauguration as South Africa’s first democratically elected president, calling it a “milestone of the 20th century.”

Mandela never spoke directly to Clinton while the cameras were in the room Monday, and never rose from the wingback chair where he sat with a lap robe over his knees.

His wife, Graca Machel, mostly spoke for him.

“Madiba’s smile is a trademark,” Machel said, using Mandela’s traditional nickname.

“You have to show you are happy!” she said, urging him to smile.

Clinton and several others posed for pictures with Mandela, who at times seemed to take little notice.

"Beautiful women! Madiba, that’s what he loves!” Machel said.

Clinton, Machel and the others had lunch following the meeting, but Mandela remained in the living room with his medical attendants.

Mandela spent 27 years in prison for fighting white rule in South Africa. His release in 1990 led to the end of the minority white regime in 1994.

Mandela has homes in Johannesburg and Qunu, but has spent most of his time in Qunu in recent years. In May, it was announced that he would stay there indefinitely.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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