PRETORIA, South Africa — President Obama met privately Saturday afternoon with members of Nelson Mandela’s family , but he will not visit the ailing 94-year-old icon at the hospital out of respect for his health concerns, the White House announced.
At about 2:45 p.m., the president’s motorcade pulled up at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg, where he met with Mandela’s daughters Makaziwe Mandela and Zindzi Mandela Hlongwane, as well as a number of his grandchildren, as reporters waited outside.
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Obama said in a statement afterward that he had also spoken by telephone with Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, who is at her husband’s side in the hospital in Pretoria.
“I expressed my hope that Madiba draws peace and comfort from the time that he is spending with loved ones,” Obama said after meeting with the family. “I also reaffirmed the profound impact that his legacy has had in building a free South Africa, and in inspiring people around the world — including me. That’s a legacy that we must all honor in our own lives, including this July on Mandela Day.”
At 3:09 p.m., the motorcade left the Mandela center and headed toward Soweto for a young leaders town hall event.
Earlier, Obama arrived here in the administrative capital for a bilateral meeting with South African President Jacob Zuma at the Union Buildings.
After the bilateral meeting, Obama and Zuma held a joint news conference, during which Zuma said Obama and Mandela are “bound by history as the first black presidents of their respective countries. Both carry the dreams of millions of people of Africa and the diaspora who were previously oppressed.” Zuma, referring to Mandela’s tribal name, said the nations continue “to pray for Madiba’s good health and well-being.”
Obama said that the “struggle here against apartheid . . . and Madiba’s moral courage, with the country transitioning to a free and democratic nation, has been a personal inspiration to me and an inspiration to the world. And it continues to be. . . . The triumph of Nelson Mandela and this nation speaks for something deep in the human spirit.”
The meeting with the Mandela family represented an emotional highlight of Obama’s week-long trip to three African nations, where he is promoting democratic values, private economic investments and increased U.S. engagement on the continent.
Obama has spoken movingly about the influence Mandela, and his fight against South Africa’s apartheid, had on him during his formative years at Occidental College three decades ago and at Harvard Law School in the early 1990s. The young Obama’s first steps into political activism came after he read Mandela’s writings, but the two men have met just once — in 2005, when Obama was a senator and Mandela already had become frail.
Aboard Air Force One on Friday, Obama told reporters he did not want to get in the way of Mandela’s health concerns.
“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,” the president said. “The main message we’ll want to deliver if not directly to him but to his family is simply our profound gratitude for his leadership all these years and that the thoughts and prayers of the American people are with him, and his family, and his country. I think in that sense, the sentiment of Americans is universally shared around the world.”
A few hundred protesters chanted and sang as they waited for Obama’s motorcade to arrive at the Soweto campus of the University of Johannesburg on Saturday. A mix of Muslim groups, members of the South African Communist Party and trade unionists, they were primarily demonstrating against U.S. foreign policy.
“Shut down Guantanamo Bay,” read many of the protesters’ placards.
Abu Bakr Tukulu, 43, a computer technician, said, “I came to protest against Obama’s visit because American drones do not save lives. They kill innocent people.”
The university is scheduled to grant Obama an honorary degree, which Tukulu opposes.
“Obama should not be honored with a degree,” said Tukulu. “He has no honor. To send drones, there is no honor in that.”
On Sunday, Obama will travel to Cape Town, where he will tour Robben Island, where Mandela spent decades as a political prisoner. The president then will give a speech at Cape Town University, focusing on Mandela’s legacy in fighting for democracy.
Sudarsan Raghavan in Johannesburg contributed to this report.