PRETORIA, South Africa – President Barack Obama plans to visit privately Saturday with relatives of former South African President Nelson Mandela, but doesn’t intend to see the critically ill anti-apartheid icon he has called a “personal hero.”
The White House did not disclose any details for Obama’s plans to meet the family in a brief statement issued upon Obama’s first morning in South Africa during a weeklong tour of the continent. The statement simply said Obama and his wife would offer their thoughts and prayers at the family’s difficult time.
“Out of deference to Nelson Mandela’s peace and comfort and the family’s wishes, they will not be visiting the hospital,” the statement said.
Obama told reporters on the flight to South Africa Friday that he was grateful that he, his wife and daughters had a chance to meet Mandela previously. Obama hangs his photo of the introduction he had to Mandela in 2005 in his personal office at the White House – their only meeting, when Obama was a senator.
“I don’t need a photo op,” Obama said. “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 met with South African President Jacob Zuma Saturday morning, greeting each other’s wives with kisses with a military honor guard standing by holding flags from both countries. Their meeting was at the grand Union Buildings, where Mandela was inaugurated as the country’s first black president in 1994 after 27 years behind bars under racist rule.
The 94-year-old Mandela has been in a nearby hospital for three weeks after being admitted with a lung infection.
Obama has said the imprisoned activist’s willingness to risk his life for the cause of equal rights helped inspire his own political activism. Obama said his message during the visit will draw on the lessons of Mandela’s life, with a message that “Africa’s rise will continue” if its people are unified instead of divided by tribe, race or religion.
“I think the main message we’ll want to deliver if not directly to him but to his family is simply a 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,” Obama said on his flight into the country.
Obama also is paying tribute to the fight against apartheid by visiting the Soweto area Saturday afternoon for a town hall with students at the University of Johannesburg. At least 176 young people were killed in Soweto township 27 years ago this month during a youth protest against the apartheid regime’s ban against teaching local Bantu languages. The Soweto Uprising catalyzed international support against apartheid, and June is now recognized as Youth Month in South Africa.
The university plans to bestow an honorary law degree on the U.S. president, while protesters are planning demonstrations against U.S. policy on issues including the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the war in Afghanistan and global warming. Hundreds marched to the U.S. Embassy on Friday, carrying signs that read: “No, You Can’t Obama,” a message inspired by Obama’s “yes, we can” campaign slogan.
Obama, the son of an African man, has been trying to inspire the continent’s youth to become civically active and part of a new democratically minded generation. Obama hosted young leaders from more than 40 African countries at the White House in 2010 and challenged them to bring change to their countries by standing up for freedom, openness and peaceful disagreement.
Obama wraps up his South Africa stay Sunday, when he plans to give a sweeping speech on U.S.-Africa policy at the University of Cape Town and take his family to Robben Island to tour the prison where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years behind bars.