The Commercial Appeal
Obama visits S. Africa as Mandela fights for life
JOHANNESBURG — President Obama arrived in South Africa Friday to find the country focused on the desperate illness of the national hero, Nelson Mandela.
It was unclear whether Mandela’s deteriorating health would allow Obama to make a hospital visit. The former South African leader, who is 94, is battling a recurring lung infection and is said to be in critical condition at a hospital in the South African capital of Pretoria.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One as he made his way to Johannesburg, Obama said he would gauge the situation after he arrived.
“I don’t need a photoop,” he said. “And 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’s visit to South Africa is seen as something of a tribute to Mandela, who helped inspire the president’s political activism. Obama will pay homage to Mandela at Robben Island, the prison where he spent 18 of his 27 years in prison.
And with South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, facing questions about its effectiveness, Obama will urge the government and the South African people to live up to the democratic example set by their first black president.
Obama and Mandela have met just once, a hastily arranged meeting in a Washington hotel room in 2005 when Obama was a U.S. senator.
A photo of the meeting hangs in Obama’s personal office at the White House, showing a smiling Mandela sitting on a chair, his legs outstretched, as the young senator reaches down to shake his hand.
A copy of the photo also hangs in Mandela’s office in Johannesburg.
Since then, the two have spoken occasionally by telephone, including after the 2008 election, when Mandela called Obama to congratulate him on his victory.
The U. S. president called Mandela in 2010 after the South African leader’s young granddaughter was killed in a car accident.
Obama’s own political rise has drawn inevitable comparisons to the South African leader. Both are Nobel Peace Prize winners and the first black men elected to lead their countries.
But their paths to power have been vastly different. While Mandela fought to end an oppressive government from the confines of a prison cell, Obama attended elite schools and rose through the U.S. political system.