JOHANNESBURG — The possibility of a meeting between the two historic figures — the first black president of the United States and the first black president of South Africa — was so tantalizingly close. But with Nelson Mandela fighting for his life in a Pretoria hospital, President Obama abandoned his hope for a visit and instead on Saturday used every stop to talk about what Mandela meant to the world, and to him.
“I expressed my hope that Madiba draws peace and comfort from the time that he is spending with loved ones,” Obama said after a meeting with some of Mandela’s children and grandchildren, using the clan name by which Mandela is widely known. “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. “
In an earlier news conference with South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, he also spoke about one of Mandela’s greatest gifts: his ability to see beyond his own legend.
“Despite how revered he was,” Obama said, Mandela understood that government must be “bigger than just one person, even one of the greatest people in history. What an incredible lesson that is.”
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He called on the continent’s leaders, including in neighboring Zimbabwe, to take stock of Mandela’s willingness to put country before himself and step down after one term despite his immense popularity. “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 had scheduled his Africa trip months ago and planned to meet with Mandela, whom he has called a personal hero. Like many South Africans, he was eager to ensure that Mandela’s legacy will live on through younger generations. He brought his two daughters on the trip, even as many locals spent Saturday taking their own children to makeshift memorials outside the Pretoria hospital where Mandela, 94, lay in critical condition and outside the Johannesburg home where he lived much of the time after his release from 27 years in apartheid prisons.
Herschelle Sigudla was one of those South Africans. He went to the hospital on a brilliantly sunny morning with his wife and two teenagers to pay their respects.
“We were in university during the struggle,” said Sigudla, 43, a physiotherapist, referring to himself and his wife, Pinky, 39, a radiologist. “He inspired us to look forward to the new South Africa.”
Sigudla and his family exuded the confidence and prosperity of the new South Africa’s affluent, well-educated black middle class. With his arms around his children, he said: “We wanted to be here for our kids as well. This is history. One day they will learn it in school, and we want them to be able to say, ‘We were there.’ ”
Obama’s meeting with 10 of Mandela’s family members replaced the meeting with Mandela himself and was arranged according to the family’s wishes, Obama administration officials said. On Saturday afternoon, the presidential limousine slipped past a gate at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory for the 25-minute private meeting before Obama headed to a town-hall-style meeting with students in Soweto. In a statement after the family meeting, Obama said he had also spoken by phone with Graça Machel, Mandela’s wife, who has been spending most of her time at her husband’s bedside.
Mandela was admitted to the hospital three weeks ago for a chronic lung infection. His condition turned critical, according to South African officials, just as Obama headed to Africa for a weeklong trip that started in Senegal.
The U.S. president still plans to salute Mandela’s life with a visit Sunday to Robben Island, the prison where Mandela spent most of his incarceration.
Obama noted that he had visited Robben Island as a senator. He said he looked forward to taking his two daughters to Mandela’s tiny prison cell to “teach them the history of that place and this country, and to help them understand not only how those lessons apply to their own lives,” but also more broadly.
After traveling to Cape Town on Sunday, Obama will deliver a speech to university students that aides said would be built around themes that relate to Mandela’s legacy. Obama will end his trip in Tanzania on Monday and Tuesday.
Obama began his first full day in South Africa in a private meeting with Zuma, who noted the talks had taken place “against the background of the ill health of our beloved former president.” Zuma pointed to the symbolism of the moment, saying Obama and Mandela are “bound by history as the first black presidents” of their countries.
Afterward, Obama said his top priority for Africa was to help its governments to establish more stable and transparent democracies and to promote greater trade and investment that will help the economies of both the U.S. and the continent.
The town-hall meeting with students and others included video hookups to small groups in Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda, three countries he is skipping on this trip. Students queried him on U.S. economic policies and terrorism in Africa, among other topics.
Many questioners, some of them young entrepreneurs, focused on how American investment and trade can help Africa’s economies and businesses. Obama pledged to work toward better trade relations with African nations, saying if Africa is doing well, “We’ve got a market of people who will want to buy more iPads and Boeing airplanes and all the good stuff that we sell.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.