Though it appears that President Obama will not be visiting Nelson Mandela in the hospital while he is in South Africa, Obama continued to lavish praise on the iconic leader as he touched down in the continent’s richest nation.
Obama also set his gaze back home, as he urged the Republican-led House to approve the immigration reform measure that has already passed the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Obama encouraged leaders in Africa and around the world to follow Mandela’s example of country before self.
“We as leaders occupy these spaces temporarily, and we don’t get so deluded that we think the fate of our country doesn’t depend on how long we stay in office,” Obama said.
Obama visited with two of Mandela’s daughters and eight of his grandchildren today at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, which is part of the Mandela’s foundation.
Obama told the family he hopes Mandela draws comfort from the time he’s spending with loved ones.
“I also reaffirmed the profound impact that his legacy has had in building a free South Africa, and in inspiring people around the world — including me,” Obama said in a statement after the visit. “That’s a legacy that we must all honor in our own lives.
Mandela’s wife Graca Machel said she drew strength from a phone conversation with Obama and said the American president added a characteristic “touch of personal warmth.”
“I am humbled by their comfort and messages of strength and inspiration, which I have already conveyed” to Mandela, she said.
While he was in nearby Pretoria earlier, Obama revered Mandela as “one of the greatest people in history.”
“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, it has been an inspiration to the world,” Obama said.
“The outpouring of love that we’ve seen in recent days shows that the triumph of Nelson Mandela and this nation speaks to something very deep in the human spirit, the yearning for justice and dignity that transcends boundaries of race and class and faith and country,” Obama said. “That’s what Nelson Mandela represents, that’s what South Africa at its best represents to the world, and that’s what brings me back here.”
South African President Jacob Zuma told Obama he and Mandela are “bound by history as the first black presidents of your respective countries.”
“Thus, you both carry the dreams of millions of people in Africa and in the diaspora who were previously oppressed,” Zuma said, reading from a prepared statement.
On the subject of immigration reform, Obama called on the Republican-led House to pass a bill by the end of July after Thursday’s passage by the Senate.
“I do urge the House to try to get this done before the August recess,” Obama said. “There is more than enough time. This thing has been debated amply and they’ve got a bunch of weeks to get it done and now is the time.”
“The ball is in the House’s court,” Obama said. “The time is right.”
Obama also declined to commit to supporting South Africa’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, though he did say the U.N.’s structure needs to be updated and it would be “odd” for an expanded Security Council not to have African representation
“How we do that and what fashion is complicated, it’s difficult and it involves all kinds of politics,” Obama said.
“Everybody wants a seat at the table, but when it comes time to step up and show responsibility, sometimes people want to be free riders,” Obama said—adding he wasn’t referring to South Africa specifically.
For his part, Zuma said he wishes the process of change at the U.N. would speed up.
Obama said he wants to boost trade with Africa and plans to renegotiate an African trade pact to make it better for American businesses. He said he welcomes competition from nations such as China, which has been aggressive in pursuing commercial opportunities in Africa.
“I don’t feel threatened by it. I think it’s a good thing,” he said. “Our only advice is make sure it’s a good deal for Africa.”
He said that means foreign investments need to employ Africans and not tolerate corruption or use of natural resources without compensation for Africans.
But there were still protests against the American president, as demonstrators from a range of trade unions and civil society groups chanted, “Away with intelligence, away,” holding posters depicting Obama with an Adolf Hitler mustache.
“People died in Libya. People are still dying in Syria,” said 54-year-old Ramasimong Tsokolibane. “In Egypt, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan drones are still killing people. So that’s why we are calling him a Hitler. He’s a killer.”
Obama’s trip will end tomorrow, when he will give a sweeping speech on U.S.-Africa policy at the University of Cape Town. He is then scheduled to take his family to Robben Island to tour the prison where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years behind bars. While he has visited Robben Island before, he said he wants to take his daughters to learn about the historic site.