President Obama tells leaders to follow Nelson Mandela's example
Jerome Delay, Associated Press
JOHANNESBURG — President Barack Obama paid personal respects Saturday to relatives of ailing anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela and encouraged leaders in Africa and around the world to follow the former South African president'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 told reporters shortly before a private, half-hour meeting with Mandela's family.
Obama spoke at a news conference with South African President Jacob Zuma in the midst of a weeklong tour of the continent that also included stops in Senegal and Tanzania, two nations where there has been progress toward democratic governance. But many other nations on the African continent are embroiled in religious, sectarian and other conflicts.
Obama decided to avoid stopping in his father's home nation of Kenya because of international disputes there. The International Criminal Court is prosecuting Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta for crimes against humanity, including murder, deportation, rape, persecution and inhumane acts allegedly committed by his supporters in the violent aftermath of Kenya's 2007 elections.
"The timing was not right for me as the president of the United States to be visiting Kenya when those issues are still being worked on, and hopefully at some point resolved," Obama said. He noted he's visited Kenya several times previously and expects he will in the future as well.
Obama and Zuma appeared at the Union Buildings that house government offices and were the site of Mandela's 1994 inauguration as the country's first black president after 27 years behind bars for his activism.
The 94-year-old Mandela has been in a nearby hospital for three weeks after being admitted with a lung infection. Zuma told reporters that Mandela is in critical but stable condition. The White House said that in accordance with the family's wishes, Obama was not planning to see the man he has called a personal hero and revered Saturday as "one of the greatest people in history."
But Obama did meet with two of Mandela's daughters and eight of his grandchildren at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, part of the former president's foundation. Obama said he 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."
Obama also spoke by telephone with Graca Machel, Mandela's wife, while she stayed at his bedside in the hospital. Machel said she drew strength from the call and that Obama 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.
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 at their news conference, reading from a prepared statement.
On other topics, Obama declined to commit to supporting South Africa's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. He said 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.
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