ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE: U.S. President Barack Obama paid tribute to anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela as he flew to South Africa on Friday but played down expectations of a meeting with the ailing black leader during an Africa tour promoting democracy and food security.
White House officials hope Obama’s three-nation tour of Africa – his first substantial visit to the continent since taking office in 2009 – will compensate for what some view as years of neglect by America’s first black president.
The health of Mandela, the 94-year-old former South African president clinging to life in a Pretoria hospital, dominated Obama’s day even before he arrived in Johannesburg.
“I don’t need a photo op,” Obama told reporters aboard Air Force One after leaving Senegal. “The last thing I want to do is to be in any way obtrusive at a time when the family is concerned with Nelson Mandela’s condition.”
Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, said his condition had improved in the past few days.
Nearly 1,000 trade unionists, Muslim activists and South African Communist Party members marched through the capital to the U.S. Embassy, where they burned an American flag and called Obama’s foreign policy “arrogant and oppressive.
Muslim activists held prayers in a car park outside the embassy. Leader Imam Sayeed Mohammed told the group: “We hope that Mandela feels better and that Obama can learn from him.”
MANDELA A “PERSONAL HERO”
Obama sees Mandela, also known as Madiba, as a hero. Whether they are able to meet or not, officials said his trip would serve largely as a tribute to the anti-apartheid leader.
Like Mandela, Obama has received the Nobel Peace Prize and both men were the first black presidents of their nations.
Air Force One departed Senegal’s coastal capital, Dakar, just before 1100 GMT (0700 ET) and was due to arrive in South Africa around eight hours later. On Friday evening, Obama has no public events scheduled and could go to the hospital then.
“When we get there, we’ll gauge the situation,” Obama told reporters.
Obama was scheduled to visit Robben Island, where Mandela spent years in prison under South Africa’s former white minority regime.
He told reporters his message in South Africa would draw from the lessons of Mandela’s life.
“If we focus on what Africa as a continent can do together and what these countries can do when they’re unified, as opposed to when they’re divided by tribe or race or religion, then Africa’s rise will continue,” Obama said.
White House officials said Obama would hold a “town hall” on Saturday with youth leaders in Soweto, the Johannesburg township known for 1976 student protests against apartheid.
He will discuss a new exchange program for African students with U.S. colleges and universities. The event will include youth in Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya participating through video conference, and will be televised in those countries, White House officials said.