Even in the silence imposed by infirmity, Nelson Mandela seemed to cast a spell over Barack Obama’s first visit to South Africa as US president on Saturday.
Mr Obama’s presence coincided with Mr Mandela’s 22nd day in intensive care. That quirk of fate prevented the first black leader of a global superpower from meeting the first black leader of a country more scarred by racial division than any other.
But Mr Obama took the opportunity to pay homage to Mr Mandela, referring to him by his clan name, Madiba. “Our thoughts and those of Americans and people all around the world are with Nelson Mandela and his family,” he said. “Madiba’s moral courage, this country’s historic transition to a free and democratic nation has been a personal inspiration to me, and has been an inspiration to the world.”
Mr Obama spoke after meeting President Jacob Zuma in the colonial splendour of the Union Buildings in the capital, Pretoria, barely half a mile away from the hospital where Mr Mandela now lies.
Eight years ago, Mr Obama had five minutes with Mr Mandela in a Washington hotel suite as a junior Senator from Illinois. Now that the 94-year-old lies stricken, Mr Obama will almost certainly never see him again. Chance has robbed him of any opportunity to build a relationship with a man who he calls a “personal hero”.
So Mr Obama spoke with extra feeling when he said: “The outpouring of love that we’ve seen in recent days shows that the triumph of Nelson Mandela and of this nation speaks to something very deep in the human spirit: the yearning for justice and dignity that transcends boundaries of race and class and faith and country.”
Mr Mandela is now on life support, breathing only with the aid of a ventilator. Many relatives have been at his bedside since he was rushed to hospital on 8 June, but none has suggested that he is capable of spoken conversation. His eldest surviving daughter, Makaziwe, says only that he responds to touch and tries to open his eyes when loved ones are present.
In deference to this, Mr Obama made no attempt to visit Mr Mandela in hospital. While en route to South Africa, he explained that the “last thing” he wanted to do was to be “in any way obtrusive”.
Instead, the White House said that Mr Obama and his wife, Michelle, visited the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg yesterday. They met several members of his family, believed to include two daughters, Makaziwe and Zindziswa.
Mr Obama then spoke to Mr Mandela’s wife, Graca, by telephone. She has rarely left the hospital since her husband’s first admission. During this call, Mr Obama said that “I expressed my hope that Madiba draws peace and comfort from the time that he is spending with loved ones, and also expressed my heartfelt support for the entire family as they work through this difficult time”.
Afterwards, Graca Mandela responded by saying: “I am humbled by their comfort and messages of strength and inspiration which I have already conveyed to Madiba.”
Last Sunday, the government said that Mr Mandela’s health had worsened to the point where he was “critical”. On Wednesday night, President Zuma visited his beside and then cancelled a visit to neighbouring Mozambique, only 45 minutes flying time away.
On Thursday morning, South Africans feared the worst, yet by that afternoon Mr Mandela was said to have been stabilised. Since then, the official word has been relatively upbeat, with his condition being summarised as “critical but stable”. On Friday, Winnie Madizikela-Mandela, his divorced wife, claimed to detect a “great improvement”.
Mr Zuma was still more optimistic yesterday, holding out the prospect of Mr Mandela being discharged. “He remains critical but stable so nothing has changed so far. But we are hoping it is going to improve,” he said. “We hope that very soon he will be out of hospital.”
Instead of preparing South Africans for the worst, Mr Zuma said that he wished Mr Mandela a “speedy recovery”. Nonetheless, FW de Klerk, the last white president who negotiated South Africa’s transition to majority rule, cancelled a visit to Europe “because of Mr Mandela’s medical condition”.
At their joint press conference, Mr Obama and Mr Zuma returned again and again to the example shown by South Africa’s stricken former leader. Whether the subject was democracy or the situation elsewhere on the continent, they both cited Mr Mandela.
Asked about the importance of democracy in Africa with reference to Kenya and Zimbabwe, Mr Obama replied: “Nelson Mandela showed what is possible and the people of South Africa have showed what’s possible when a priority is placed on constitutions, the rule of law and respect for human dignity.”
Alluding to African leaders like President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe who insist on holding power for decades, Mr Obama said: “What Nelson Mandela stood for is that the well-being of a country is more important than the interests of any individual person.” Noting that Mr Mandela chose to retire as president after serving one term, Mr Obama said: “The country is always bigger than any one person, even one of the greatest in history. What an incredible lesson that is.”
Mr Zuma, for his part, assured South Africa that his government was “pursuing policies that were crafted together with Mandela”. Recalling his frequent meetings with Mr Mandela in retirement, the president added: “In some of the visits I made before his health changed, he was saying: ‘you know, when I go to sleep, I’ll be very happy because I left South Africa moving forward’.”
Later, Mr Obama addressed an audience of South African students in Soweto. Once again, he returned to example of the “man who is on our minds today”.
“Think about 27 years in prison,” he told his audience. “Think about the hardship. And yet Madiba never lost his faith in the future.”
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