Not much could overshadow the first extended trip to Africa by the first black president of the United States.
But as Barack Obama traveled through the continent this week, he faced an avalanche of questions, anecdotes, even prayers not for his own visit – but for the beloved South African leader Nelson Mandela.
The deteriorating health of the 94-year-old global icon affectionately known here as Madiba has consumed not just South Africa, where Obama spent Saturday, but much of sub-Saharan Africa.
As a result, much of Obama’s trip was transformed into a tribute to Mandela, who led the anti-apartheid movement that coincidentally inspired the political career of a 19-year-old college student and the future president of the United States.
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“The struggle here against apartheid, for freedom; Madiba’s moral courage; this country’s historic transition to a free and democratic nation has been a personal inspiration to me,” Obama said Saturday. “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 and Mandela have only met once – Obama keeps a photo in the White House of their brief visit in 2005 when Obama was a freshman senator-- but they share a historical link as the first black president in each of their countries.
“The two of you are also bound by history -- as the first black presidents of your respective countries -- thus, you both carry the dreams of millions of people in Africa and in the diaspora who were previously oppressed,” South Africa President Jacob Zama said at a news conference with Obama Saturday.
Obama met privately Saturday with members of Mandela’s family -- two daughters and eight grandchildren -- at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg and spoke by telephone with Mandela’s wife, Graça Machel, who remained by her husband’s side.
On Sunday, Obama will tour Robben Island, where Mandela was held in a small cell for 18 of his 27 years in prison as a political prisoner under the white leaders who ruled the nation. Obama will later give the signature speech of the trip in which he will highlight the example Mandela set in standing up both to apartheid and in a peaceful transition of power.
“So much of the democratic progress that we see across the continent I think can be tied in some way to the inspiration that Nelson Mandela set,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Obama. “We are definitely going to be paying tribute to Nelson Mandela’s contribution to not just South Africa, but to Africa and the world.”
Obama is on the second stop of a weeklong trip to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania designed to promote trade, build democracies and inspire youth leaders. It was a trip Africans had long been waiting for but the timing meant that residents were instead busy mentally preparing themselves to mourn the passing of Mandela.
Handwritten letters, flowers and balloons were piling up outside his hospital, where well-wishers prayed. Family members were publicly feuding about his funeral arrangements.
The largest South Africa newspaper on Saturday did feature an article on Obama’s arrival on the front page, though it was solely about whether Obama would visit Mandela in the hospital.
Mandela’s illness prompted a delicate balancing act by Obama, who had to chose between pushing his own agenda and honoring the former leader.
On Saturday, Obama met with South Africa President Jacob Zuma behind closed doors at the majestic Renaissance neoclassical style presidential complex, Union Buildings. He later answered questions from a diverse crowd of young leaders from several African nations in person and on video at a town hall meeting at the University of Johannesburg – Soweto. At both events, he began his remarks by talking about Mandela.
CNN’s Nkepile Mabuse, who moderated the town hall meeting equated the release of Mandela from prison and the election of Obama, as the two events that gave Africans hope and pride.
At a dinner for Obama and Zuma Saturday evening, they observed a moment of silence for Mandela.
Government officials and family members provided conflicting information on Mandela, who has been fighting a lung infection for weeks. He was reported to be on life support, though Zuma said his condition improved slightly.
Mandela’s daughter, Zindzi Mandela-Motlhajwa, said earlier this week that her father opened his eyes and smiled from his bed at the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria when he was told Obama planned to visit the country.
White House aides initially said Obama could stop by the hospital to see Mandela, but on Saturday they said that would not happen “out of deference to Nelson Mandela’s peace and comfort and the family’s wishes,” according to the White House.
“I don’t need a photo-op, and the last thing I want to do is to be in any way obtrusive at a time when the family is concerned about Nelson Mandela’s condition,” Obama said as he flew to Johannesburg from Senegal.
Leaders in some of Africa’s 57 other nations have been criticized in recent weeks for visiting Mandela, snapping photos which were publicly released.
The two men have operated in vastly different political environments with different constraints. But they are forever bound as presidents, Noble Prize winners and men who inspired black residents in the United States and Africa.
In 2005, Obama, a newly elected senator, met Mandela when he was in Washington. Three years later, Mandela called Obama to congratulate him on his victory. The two have spoken several times in the years that followed, but never in person. First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters, Sasha and Malia, visited Mandela in 2011 when they were in South Africa.
“I think, you know, effectively we have in President Mandela, somebody who is, you know, so ill that it’s very, very difficult for him to productively engage in public life. And I think that’s acted as a constraint,” said Haroon Bhorat, a professor at the University of Cape Town.
“My sense is, were this 10 years earlier, President Mandela would have reached out. Being President Mandela, he would have reached out to President Obama, and I think the relationship would have been a very sort of warm and productive one, I have no doubts about that.”