Obama Visits South Africa in the Shadow of an Ailing Mandela

Despite his packed agenda, Obama's trip can't compete with the media frenzy surrounding the health of South Africa's 94-year-old former president

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Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Tributes at the hospital where Mandela was treated.

On his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa as President, Barack Obama is deferring to Nelson Mandela. “Mandela’s courage has been a personal inspiration to me and the world and continues to be,” Obama said Saturday morning at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa. “The outpouring of love we have seen speaks to Mandela’s legacy, it’s what SA at its best can represent to the world.” Obama is facing a difficult situation, visiting a nation distracted by the imminent death of its hero, 94-year-old Mandela, who has now been hospitalized for 22 days.

Despite his packed agenda Saturday, it was difficult to tell the President was visiting the country. On Friday, South African headlines and prime time television spots were almost exclusively dominated by Madiba, Mandela’s clan name. There were 13 Mandela stories in the Pretoria News, compared with two Obama pieces. On Saturday morning, Obama’s joint press conference with South African President Jacob Zuma began and ended with the anti-apartheid hero. “The two of you are also by bound by history, as the first black Presidents of your respective countries,” Zuma said, “thus you both carry the dreams of millions of people in Africa and the diaspora, who were previously oppressed.”

Attention was deflected from Obama again after violence erupted outside his town hall meeting at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus. Shortly before Obama paid tribute to the Soweto Uprising, which saw at least 176 young people killed 27 years ago in a protest against apartheid, South African police pushed back protesters outside the campus with stun grenades. A variety of trade unions and labor groups, some carrying signs depicting Obama as Hitler, were protesting American foreign policy in Israel, its military presence in Africa and its embargo against Cuba.

(MORE: As Mandela’s Condition Improves, South Africa’s Anxiety Remains)

Inside the venue, the mood was more upbeat. The audience erupted in shosholoza, a freedom song sung when Mandela was released from prison, in anticipation of Obama taking the stage. The crowd began dancing, whistling and ululating. “Now this feels like South Africa again,” tweeted local journalist Alex Eliseev. When Obama said Jozi, slang for Johannesburg, the crowd laughed and cheered. And in his speech, the President emphasized a new Africa with a developed consumer class who can buy “iPads and planes.”

But Obama also answered some uncomfortable questions. When asked why he didn’t visit Kenya, where his father was born, he said “with a new administration that is having to manage some of the international issues around the International Criminal Court, I did not think it was the optimal time to visit.” (Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has been accused by the International Criminal Court of crimes against humanity for allegedly organizing violence after the 2007 election). On terrorism threats developing in Africa, such as Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group in Nigeria, Obama downplayed the role of U.S. military intervention in the region. “I don’t start with the attitude of a military solution to the problems,” he said, “I was elected to end a war. I’ve ended one, I’m in the process of ending another one.”

Audience members said they loved the town hall meeting, but were skeptical about the President’s promises to help Africa. Obama gave a rousing speech to Ghana’s parliament in 2009, saying “This is a new moment of promise.” However, with less of a presence in the continent than his predecessors, South Africans are cautious about investing in Obama. “I think it was interesting to see he’s passionate about Africa,” says Sandra Terarai, a 26-year-old scientist from Johannesburg, who attended the event, “but the proof is what happens with his initiatives.” Gugulethu Mhlungu agreed. “We need solutions now, we need to get moving,” said the 25-year-old press director of Youthlab, a youth organization, “I’m reluctant to talk about Africa rising.”

(MORE: Unlikely Fashion Mogul: Nelson Mandela’s Foundation Launches Fashion Line)

Before Obama leaves for Tanzania Sunday evening, he will meet with African Union Chairperson Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, President Zuma’s ex-wife. Steve McDonald, director of the Africa program at the Wilson Center, says Obama would have been better off going to Ethiopia, the headquarters of the union. “Obama is doing our normal bilateral drift, going to the countries who are friends, who are safe, where we have vested interests,” says McDonald, “the ones that are struggling to address corruption and autocratic rule, it’s those countries we need to be throwing our weight behind.”

Following a visit to Robben Island, Mandela’s former prison, Obama will deliver a speech in Cape Town. It will be the keynote of the trip, focusing on American-Africa policy, trade and investment, and peace and security partnerships. “Obama will be looking to shore up a degree of confidence in South Africa, and to encourage the maturation of the democratic process,” says Daniel Silke, a political analyst based in Cape Town. Now is a good opportunity for Obama to get the United States higher up on the African agenda, said Silke, to “offset the advances that have been made in the region, by China and other emerging nations.”

Whatever he says, Obama will be speaking in the shadow of Mandela. “Fate has taken a strange turn,” says Silke, “preventing South Africa from fully embracing the Obama visit.”