President Barack Obama paid tribute to South Africa’s first black president Sunday, saying Nelson Mandela’s long struggle against apartheid and for equality “showed us that one man’s courage can move the world.”
Obama, the first black U.S. president, visited the wind-swept Robben Island prison off the coast at Cape Town where Mandela was confined for much of his 27 years as a political prisoner.
The president later told young South Africans that the critically ill former leader’s vision of equality and opportunity should remain theirs as well.
On Robben Island, Obama stood with his wife Michelle and daughters Malia, 15, and Sasha, 12, in the cramped cell that was home to Mandela for 18 of the 27 years he was in prison before his release in 1990. They viewed the lime quarry where Mandela worked at hard labor and contracted the lung damage that still afflicts him.
“Seeing them stand within the walls that once surrounded Nelson Mandela, I knew this was an experience they would never forget,” Obama said, referring to his children.
“I knew that they now appreciated a little bit more the sacrifices that Madiba and others had made for freedom,” Obama added, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
The president and his family flew to Cape Town on Sunday after meeting here with members of Mandela’s family and speaking by phone with his wife, Graca Machel. Obama did not visit Mandela in the Pretoria hospital where he has been in intensive care since June 8 suffering from complications of a lung infection at the age of 94.
He visited the island prison off shore from the coastal city and later, at the University of Cape Town, reflected on the distinction he shares with Mandela as the first men of color to lead their nations.
“Nelson Mandela showed us that one man’s courage can move the world,” Obama said.
He was flanked by a diverse array of students, underscoring Mandela’s vision for a unified, multiracial “rainbow nation” for the country once led by a white racist government that imposed a system of apartheid, or racial segregation.
The president also saw the prison courtyard where Mandela planted grapevines that remain today, and where he and others in the dissident leadership discussed politics and hid writings from their guards.
The tour included a stop at the lime quarry where Mandela toiled and developed the lung problems that sent him to the hospital for most of the month. Obama commented on the “hard labor” Mandela endured and asked Kathrada to remind his daughters, Malia and Sasha, how long Mandela was in prison.
Barack Obama is in South Africa as part of a week-long trip to three countries on the continent. His first stop was in Senegal where the president met with Senegalese President Macky Sall. On Monday, Obama will head to Tanzania in east Africa for two days.
His stay in South Africa has been overshadowed in part by Mandela’s failing health. The anti-apartheid hero has been hospitalized for most of June and is said to be in critical condition.