JOHANNESBURG - Nelson Mandela is still very much alive despite an embarrassing gaffe by U.S. President George W. Bush, who alluded to the former South African leader's death in an attempt to explain sectarian violence in Iraq.
"It's out there. All we can do is reassure people, especially South Africans, that President Mandela is alive," Achmat Dangor, chief executive officer of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said as Bush's comments received worldwide coverage.
In a speech defending his administration's Iraq policy, Bush said former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's brutality had made it impossible for a unifying leader to emerge and stop the sectarian violence that has engulfed the Middle Eastern nation.
"I heard somebody say, 'Where's Mandela?' Well, Mandela's dead because Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas," Bush, who has a reputation for verbal faux pas, said in a press conference in Washington on Thursday.
Jailed for 27 years for fighting white minority rule, Mandela became South Africa's first black president in 1994. He won a Nobel Peace Prize for preaching racial harmony and guiding the nation peacefully into the post-apartheid era.
References to his death -- Mandela is now 89 and increasingly frail -- are seen as insensitive in South Africa.
© 2007 Reuters