President Barack Obama, in South Africa for a three-day visit to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela’s legacy, will meet privately with his family instead of going to see the 94-year-old anti-apartheid leader in the hospital, the White House said.
The U.S. president and first lady Michelle Obama will meet privately later today with family members “to offer their thoughts and prayers at this difficult time,” the White House said in a statement. “Out of deference to Nelson Mandela’s peace and comfort and the family’s wishes, they will not be visiting the hospital.”
Obama, who has called Mandela a personal hero, arrived in Johannesburg last night from Dakar, Senegal, where he kicked off a mission to promote trade and investment across the African continent by underscoring the importance of democratic values to economic growth.
While Mandela’s condition has weighed on the entire trip, it will be most felt in the South African icon’s home country, which Obama plans to draw on as a symbol of what’s possible.
“If we focus on what Africa as a continent can do together and what these countries can do when they’re unified as opposed to when they’re divided by tribe or race or religion, then Africa’s rise will continue,” Obama told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One to South Africa.
“That’s one of the essential lessons of what Nelson Mandela accomplished not just as president but in the struggle to overcome apartheid and his years in prison,” he said.
Obama, who had just one face-to-face meeting with Mandela, in 2005, said he would defer to the family on a potential visit with the ailing leader, who lies in a Pretoria hospital after weeks of treatment for a lung infection.
“I don’t need a photo-op,” Obama said. “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 is forging ahead with the trip even with the visit’s potentially uncomfortable, albeit profound, timing.
Given the delicacy of the situation, Obama will have to walk a “diplomatic tightrope” with his events in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“The U.S.-South Africa relationship is prickly at the best of times,” he said. “His visit is likely to be a distraction for South Africans and one poorly chosen word or misstep runs the risk of causing grave offense to his hosts.”
Traveling with his family, Obama will visit landmarks and meet with representatives of Mandela’s life and struggles. He holds a news conference today with President Jacob Zuma in Pretoria and later makes remarks and answers questions from young Africans at the University of Johannesburg Soweto.
Tomorrow he goes to Cape Town for a scheduled visit to Robben Island off the city’s coast, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison for opposing white-minority rule.
From there, Obama has a planned visit to a community center that focuses on health and HIV/AIDS prevention with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who greeted Mandela the day he was released from prison in 1990.
“Diplomatic life has to go on,” said Daryl Glaser, a politics professor at the University of Witwatersrand.
“The Mandela news event is both domestically and internationally a much bigger story than Obama’s trip to Africa,” Glaser said in an interview. “I don’t think Africa looms as large in people’s imagination around the world, including Americans, as Mandela the person does.”
Obama has made a point throughout his presidency to engage directly with local youth when he travels abroad. Young African leaders from Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya -- three countries Obama is skipping on this trip -- will join via satellite in the event at the University of Johannesburg in Soweto.
The location was chosen for the town’s significance in the anti-apartheid movement, said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
The town hall-style event, like those that have become a regular part of U.S. political campaigns, will be broadcast on television stations throughout Africa, he said.
“By bringing in these virtual locations, we’ll be able to reach hundreds of millions of people through the broadcast of this town hall,” he said.
Rhodes called Zuma a strategic partner on economic and national security issues including efforts to deal with the political upheaval in Central Africa, the situation in South Sudan and promoting democracy across the continent.
The visit by a sitting U.S. president, notably its first black president, is important for the South African leader, Glaser said. The country has the continent’s largest economy and has been “the post-apartheid rainbow nation darling of the world” since 1994, when Mandela was elected president.
“It wanted to maintain good relations for the West, for reasons of investment, tourism,” Glaser said. Of the 49 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa is the top market for U.S. goods, receiving roughly one-third of U.S. exports to the region.
South Africa is the 36th largest goods trading partner for the U.S. with a total of $16.8 billion in 2011. Exports totaled $7.3 billion, up 29 percent from year before, and imports were $9.5 billion.
Obama is using stops in three African democracies -- Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania -- to highlight progress being made on the continent and point to the economic opportunities that can come as a result.
“Those countries where businesses can feel confident that there will be peaceful transitions of power, that corruption is prosecuted, where there’s rule of law, where there’s protection of private property, where the government is practical and not wildly ideological -- that is what will attract American businesses,” Obama said.
When he talks to chief executive officers of U.S. companies, they see the potential in Africa, still “what they don’t want to do is find themselves five years out suddenly with a different government, suddenly their money’s stuck, their workers are being shaken down,” Obama said. The progress being made in Africa is “the kind of thing that we want to make sure we emphasize throughout this trip.”
Obama said he’ll convey that message over the next several days as he prays for Mandela and his family.
“The message will be consistent because it draws on the lessons of Nelson Mandela’s own life,” Obama said.