Obama Visits South Africa, Encountering Protests and Mandela Worries

Obama protesters in South Africa

President Obama continues his Africa trip with a weekend visit to South Africa, where many are disillusioned by his leadership, perhaps because they began with expectations  that were too high—in the same manner that many of his early supporters in the U.S. have soured on his stewardship.

South Africa is also in the throes of early mourning for iconic leader Nelson Mandela, who is critically ill and many fear close to  death. While Obama would like to visit the 94-year-old Mandela, who he met once in 2005 when he was still a senator, he is leaving the decision up to Mandela’s family and medical team.

But a story in the New York Times chronicled Obama’s special feelings toward Mandela, whose fight against apartheid inspired the president to activism during his college days at Occidental in 1979, and who has remained a significant source of inspiration to Obama throughout his adult life.

The Times said Obama’s closest advisers say people do not realize how much Mandela has been an inspiration to Obama during some of the president’s most difficult moments.

Valerie B. Jarrett, a senior adviser and close friend of Mr. Obama’s, told the Times that Mandela had given Obama “the strength to persevere.”

Obama wrote a foreword for Mandela’s 2010 book, “Conversations With Myself,” in which he describes Mandela’s impact on him.

“His sacrifice was so great that it called upon people everywhere to do what they could on behalf of human progress,” Obama wrote. “In the most modest of ways, I was one of those people who tried to answer his call.”

According to the Times, “a meeting between Mr. Mandela and Mr. Obama would have been rich with symbolism and symmetry for people on both continents: two men from different generations who made history as the first black presidents of nations with deep racial divides. Both embraced a cool pragmatism in their attempt to be post-racial leaders, and both have inspired as well as disappointed many supporters.”

That disappointment with Obama is on full display in South Africa, where he is facing a coterie of protesters upset about his foreign policies, particularly the continued use of drone strikes.

About 200 trade unionists, student activists and South African Communist Party members in the capital Pretoria called the president’s foreign policy “arrogant, selfish and oppressive”.

“We had expectations of America’s first black president. Knowing Africa’s history, we expected more,” said Khomotso Makola, a 19-year-old law student.

“He has come as a disappointment, I think Mandela too would be disappointed and feel let down,” Makola said.

During his weekend trip to Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, Obama will be visiting Robben Island, the former penal colony where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years of the 27 years he spent in apartheid jails.

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