A portrait of former South African President Nelson Mandela is displayed in a street outside Union Buildings in Pretoria. A gravely ill Mandela showed tentative signs of improvement Thursday as South Africa-bound US President Barack Obama led a chorus of support for the "hero for the world." (AFP/Getty/AFP/Getty Images)

To understand President Obama’s reverence for South Africa’s former president, it’s important to remember the role anti-apartheid activism played on college campuses in the 1980s.

In a Thursday press conference in Senegal, Obama recalled, “My first act of political activism was when I was at Occidental College. As a 19-year-old, I got involved in the anti-apartheid movement back in 1979, 1980, because I was inspired by what was taking place in South Africa.”