JOHANNESBURG – Paying tribute to his personal hero, President Barack Obama met privately Saturday with Nelson Mandela’s family as the world anxiously awaited news on the condition of the ailing 94-year-old anti-apartheid leader.
Obama, who has spoken movingly about Mandela throughout his trip to Africa, praised the former South African president’s “moral courage” during remarks from the grand Union Buildings where Mandela was inaugurated as his nation’s first black president.
The U.S. president also called on the continent’s leaders, including in neighboring Zimbabwe, to take stock of Mandela’s willingness to put country before self 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 at a news conference with South African President Jacob Zuma.
Obama’s stop in South Africa marked the midway point of a weeklong trip to Africa, his most significant engagement with the continent since taking office.
His lack of personal attention on the region has frustrated some Africans who had high expectations for the first black American president and son of a Kenyan man.
Even with Mandela’s health casting a shadow over his visit, Obama tried to keep focus on an agenda that includes deeper U.S. economic ties with Africa. The president dismissed suggestions that he was only investing personal capital on Africa’s economy as a response to the increased focus on the continent by China, India, Brazil and others.
“I want everybody playing in Africa,” he said. “The more, the merrier.”
But the president pointedly called on Africans to make sure that countries seeking an economic foothold on the continent are making a “good deal for Africa.”
“If somebody says they want to come build something here, are they hiring African workers?” Obama said. “If somebody says that they want to help you develop your natural resources, how much of the money is staying in Africa? If they say that they’re very interested in a certain industry, is the manufacturing and value-added done in Africa?”
The president did not specifically single out China, but some African leaders have criticized Beijing for such behaviors.
Obama’s focus on trade and business appeared to be well received in Africa, home to six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies. The majority of the questions he received from the South African press and later at a town hall meeting with young African leaders focused on U.S. economic interests in the region.
Obama, who has met Mandela in person only once before, did not visit the former leader in the hospital out of respect for his family’s wishes, the White House said. Ahead of his arrival in South Africa, the president had told reporters that he did not need “a photo op” and didn’t want to be obtrusive.