“As you go forward, I want you to think about the man in our prayers today,” Obama said. “Think of the 27 years in prison, the hardship and struggles. . . . In your lives, there are times that will test your faith. Don’t lose those qualities of your youth: your imagination, your optimism, your idealism.”
Obama has said that Mandela and the apartheid struggle inspired him to take his first steps into political activism as a 19-year-old college student in 1980. Now America’s first black president has been coming to terms with the impending death of the man he has called his hero, visiting the places and people closest to Mandela’s life.
Obama’s visit to a place of personal resonance came during one of the most politically challenging times in his presidency, as he struggles to advance his second-term policy agenda and grapples with a series of controversies that have buffeted his administration. His bid to build political momentum, which includes his trip to three African nations to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the continent, has largely been overshadowed by Mandela’s health.
At times, Obama has sounded a bit like Mandela, drawing a subtle parallel between the elder statesman’s achievements and his own evolving legacy. Asked at a news conference here Saturday about his politically treacherous push for immigration changes back home, Obama responded: “One thing I know about why the United States is admired around the world is that people do recognize that America is a nation of immigrants, that, like South Africa, it is a multiracial and multicultural nation. And that makes us stronger.”
Though Mandela’s condition prevented the two from meeting, Obama visited privately with members of Mandela’s family on Saturday at the Centre of Memory, an organization to advance his causes.
On Sunday, the president will tour Robben Island, where Mandela spent decades as a political prisoner before being released in 1990. And he will deliver a speech at Cape Town University, which aides said would again pay homage to Mandela in Obama’s push for democratic values in a fast-changing continent. He will also visit Tanzania before returning home.
Drama in the background
Here in South Africa, the president’s visit is taking place against a backdrop of messy political and family sagas involving Mandela’s legacy and how he will spend his last days.
The ruling African National Congress has been accused of seeking political currency from the grief surrounding his illness. With presidential and provincial elections coming next year, the party has sent hundreds of its supporters to sing praises outside Mandela’s hospital in the administrative capital, Pretoria.