The only meeting between the first black presidents of the U.S. and South Africa lasted only a few minutes and almost didn’t happen.
In May 2005, Barack Obama, a new U.S. senator, was riding to a Washington event when his office called. Nelson Mandela, whose decades-long fight against apartheid and efforts at racial reconciliation had inspired Obama to become engaged in politics, was in town and asking to see him. Obama seized the chance.
In Mandela’s room at the Four Seasons hotel, the man who had transformed South Africa rested in an armchair, legs up, a cane at his side. Obama bent to gently grasp Mandela’s hand. In an unpublished photograph taken by Obama aide David Katz, Obama is in silhouette while Mandela is bathed in light.
When Obama, 51, makes his first presidential trip to South Africa this week as part of a three-country visit to the continent, it will be too late for the sort of reunion with the 94-year-old ailing African icon that he may have once imagined, if any contact between them is even possible.
Still, Obama’s visit is inviting comparisons of these two presidents who each broke the color barrier in different ways.
Mandela and Obama are both historic figures, Nobel Peace Prize winners, who leaped from being parochial politicians to symbolic forces of global change, helping to shed shameful aspects of their nations’ pasts.
Yet the comparisons only go so far. While Obama admires Mandela’s strength and resilience, he’s not seeking to be the standard bearer of the South African’s legacy, top aides say.
“I have never once heard President Obama in any way compare himself to President Mandela,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior Obama adviser. “I know he feels that any challenges he may have simply pale in comparison to what Mandela endured.”
Some of Obama’s policies would probably have drawn criticism from Mandela, as did those of his predecessors, Presidents George W. Bush -- Mandela called the U.S. “a threat to world peace” during Bush’s presidency -- and Bill Clinton, for U.S. policies aimed at isolating Cuba, Iran and Libya.
Obama’s campaign calls for bipartisanship, racial unity and multilateralism “would have resonated with President Mandela,” said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The president’s robust defense of anti-terrorism policies, such as expanding lethal drone strikes abroad and classified surveillance of telephone and Internet communications, likely would not, she said. “I think Mandela would find that anathema to broad ideals of principled foreign policy.”
The Reverend Jesse Jackson, the civil rights activist and a longtime friend of Mandela, agreed. While Mandela has held Obama in “high esteem,” he would be “troubled by” the U.S. drone policy, Jackson said.
Mandela is hospitalized and his condition has “become critical,” the office of South African President Jacob Zuma said in a statement yesterday. Doctors are “doing everything possible” to ensure his health improves, the statement said.
Obama, who will visit Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Robben Island, where Mandela was held for 18 of his 27 years in prison, will defer to Mandela’s family on whether he’s in condition to receive a personal visit, according to Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser.
In recent days, Obama has been reflecting with aides on Mandela and the influence he has had on him, Rhodes said in an interview. Obama was moved when Mandela called after his 2008 election, and he spoke with him in 2010 when Mandela’s great-granddaughter was killed in a car crash on her way home from the opening concert of the World Cup in South Africa.
“He considers Mandela one of the most important influences on his desire to enter into public service,” Rhodes said. “It was the first thing that drew him to political activism.”
Obama’s first political speech, as an undergraduate at Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1981, was inspired by Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement.
Recalling his on-stage role in the South African divestment campaign, Obama wrote later in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father, ‘‘I really wanted to stay up there, to hear my voice bouncing off the crowd and returning back to me in applause,’’ even as he feared that he had no standing to speak and that his appearance had been ‘‘a farce.’’
While Mandela was receding from public life as Obama began his meteoric rise, his prison exile by whites and perseverance in becoming the nation’s president in 1994 shaped Obama’s sense of how patience and organization could yield change.
‘‘The sense of ordinary people getting involved in a political process with a determination to affect change, and then seeing change happen, certainly gave him the foundation to believe that grassroots efforts could have a dramatic effect,” Jarrett said of Obama.
Mandela’s example “helped awaken me to the wider world, and the obligation that we all have to stand up for what is right,” Obama wrote in the forword to Mandela’s memoir, “Conversations with Myself.”
Nonetheless, Obama’s own experience -- raised as a biracial American during the U.S. civil rights movement by a white mother and grandparents -- is far removed from Mandela’s. He was admitted to and flourished in elite institutions, from the private school he attended in Hawaii to Harvard Law School. His political alliances in the Illinois state legislature and later the U.S. Senate transcended racial lines.
As president, Obama has largely steered away from policies and stances that would identify him as a black president, focusing on the U.S. economy and national security.
While Obama and Mandela both broke the race barrier in their countries, “if you keep going, the analogy starts to break down,” said Bruce Ransom, a political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina who specializes in black politics.
Unlike Mandela, the path to Obama’s election didn’t change the structural foundations of the U.S. government, he said.
“On a surface level you see parallels, but in terms of governance and getting things done, what happened with Mandela and the dismantling of apartheid, it was a new day and a transformative process.”
Even as the first black president, Obama has been cautious in confronting racially charged matters, Ransom said. “The president, in many cases, can’t deal with issues of race head on, or some say he hasn’t dealt with them at all,” Ransom said. “He still walks a tightrope.”
Jackson said Mandela is “a figure who is both historical and transformative,” while Obama “has miles to go before he reaches the pinnacle of his role in the White House and in the world.”
Obama himself has acknowledged that. Accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, he said his “accomplishments are slight” compared to past recipients, including Mandela.
Still, in South Africa, Obama “will receive an exceptionally warm reception,” Jackson said. “He is seen as a great historical figure in Africa completing the circle” from slavery to self-determination, he said.
After his meeting with Mandela in 2005, Obama returned to the car. He was more reflective than loquacious about what he saw as the significance of the moment, recalled Katz, the former aide who took the photograph of the two men, a black-and-white version of which hangs in Obama’s private White House residence and a color version, signed by Obama, is framed in Mandela’s study.
“He was a junior senator from Illinois,” Katz said. “It was far more of an honor for Obama to meet him than the other way around.”