Obama Turns Nelson Mandela’s Legacy Into Economic Message

President Barack Obama is using a visit to South Africa to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela and urge African leaders to follow the anti-apartheid icon’s example as a path to international respect and economic growth.

Out of deference to Mandela’s family, Obama yesterday didn’t visit the 94-year-old leader, who is in critical condition. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama spoke by phone with Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, who was at her husband’s Pretoria bedside, and offered prayers.

Today, Obama is scheduled to travel to Cape Town and visit Robben Island, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison for opposing white-minority rule. He also plans to visit a community center that focuses on HIV/AIDS prevention with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who greeted Mandela the day he was released from prison in 1990.

Later he delivers an address at the University of Cape Town, in the same hall where Robert F. Kennedy gave his “Ripple of Hope” speech in 1966, shortly after Mandela was imprisoned. Ben Rhodes, White House national security adviser, said Obama will again reflect on Mandela’s legacy and the lessons of his life, especially for a democratic society.

“The struggle here against apartheid for freedom, Madiba’s moral courage, this country’s historic transition to a free and democratic nation has been a personal inspiration to me,” Obama, using Mandela’s clan name, said yesterday in Pretoria at a press conference with South African President Jacob Zuma. “It has been an inspiration to the world.”

Africa Trip

Obama is on the second-leg of an Africa trip that began in Senegal and finishes in Tanzania. The president has promoted trade and investment across the continent and underscored the importance of democratic values to economic growth. Mandela’s illness has weighed on the entire trip, yet it has been most felt in the South African icon’s home country.

Obama met for 25 minutes with two of Mandela’s daughters and several grandchildren at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg. Later, Machel released a statement saying she has “drawn strength” from the support of Obama and his family.

Zuma said Obama and Mandela were “bound by history” and that he hopes Mandela will soon be released from the hospital, though his stable yet critical condition hasn’t changed. Later at a dinner the leaders observed a moment of silence in Mandela’s honor.

Obama called on leaders of African nations to fulfill Mandela’s legacy by embracing democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Obama underscored the point by citing the value of term-limits and saying Mandela, who served just one term as president, recognized that “the well-being of a country is more important than the interests of any one person.”

Role of Leaders

“We as leaders, we occupy these spaces temporarily and we don’t get so deluded that we start thinking that the fate of our countries depends on how long we stay in office,” he said.

Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe, in power since 1981, has cracked down on political opponents, used to be one of the wealthiest countries on continent. But “bad governance has led to an economic disaster,” Obama said.

Obama praised Zuma’s leadership and said he wants the U.S. to enhance business ties with South Africa.

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.

The two leaders yesterday differed on a number of issues including Palestinian statehood and South Africa’s efforts to be included in the United Nations Security Council.


Protestors in Soweto and in other parts of Johannesburg opposed the U.S. detention of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the country’s policy toward Iran and Obama’s use of drone strikes in conflict situations.

At a town hall meeting at the University of Johannesburg, Obama announced an expansion of the Young Africa Leaders Initiative - a program established in 2010 - by unveiling a new Washington Fellowship that will join with companies including Boeing Co. and Microsoft Corp., to bring 500 African students a year to study in the U.S beginning in 2014. Students will meet with Obama, other lawmakers and business leaders, the White House said.

Obama’s trip to Africa sends a message to the world that the U.S. is paying attention to Africa’ success, Aliko Dangote, chairman of Nigeria’s Dangote Group and Africa’s richest man, told reporters.

Dangote is the 32nd richest man in the world, worth $19.9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index.

“We know now that he cares,” Dangote said. “With this huge potential of Africa I sure he won’t let China take the day.”

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