Workers roll out the red carpet at Air Force One as US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrive in Cape Town on Sunday. Picture: REUTERS
Workers roll out the red carpet at Air Force One as US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrive in Cape Town on Sunday. Picture: REUTERS

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama paid tribute on Sunday to the man who inspired his political activism by taking his family on a tour of the island prison where anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela spent 18 years confined to a tiny cell.

Mr Obama’s visit to Robben Island comes as Mr Mandela is hospitalised for a third week in critical condition. Mr Obama was near Mr Mandela’s Pretoria hospital on Saturday but did not see him due to the family’s wishes, and instead met privately with Mr Mandela’s relatives.

Mr Obama's schedule begins with a flight to Cape Town on Sunday, followed by a helicopter ride to the museum on Robben Island. Mr Obama visited the country when he was a senator but has brought his family along this time. He said he was eager to teach them about Mr Mandela’s role in overcoming white racist rule, first as an activist and later as a president who forged a unity government with his former captors.

Mr Obama told reporters on Saturday he wanted to "help them (his family) to understand not only how those lessons apply to their own lives but also to their responsibilities in the future as citizens of the world, that’s a great privilege and a great honour."

Mr Obama, who has spoken movingly about Mr Mandela throughout his trip to Africa, praised the former South African president’s "moral courage" during remarks from the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where Mr Mandela was inaugurated as the nation’s first black president.

"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," said Mr Obama said during a news conference with President Jacob Zuma.

Comparisons drawn between Mandela, Obama

Mr Obama’s ascent to the White House has drawn inevitable comparisons to Mr Mandela. Both are their nations’ first black presidents, symbols of racial barrier breaking and winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. Mr Obama also entered politics at an early age, attending his first political rally while a 19-year-old college student protesting apartheid.

Mr Zuma said Mr Obama and Mr Mandela "both carry the dreams of millions of people in Africa and in the diaspora who were previously oppressed."

Mr Mandela’s legacy would be a prominent theme throughout Mr Obama’s speech at the University of Cape Town later Sunday, said White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. The president will emphasis "the ability for societies to change," Mr Rhodes said, along with the need for democratic development and empowering young people.

Mr Rhodes said Mr Mandela’s vision was always going to feature prominently in the speech given that the address would follow Mr Obama’s visit to Robben Island, but the former South African leader’s deteriorating health "certainly puts a finer point on just how much we can’t take for granted what Nelson Mandela did."

Mr Obama was also expected to emphasise how Mr Mandela’s democratic vision was hardly complete. While there had been progress that "nobody could have possibly imagined," Mr Rhodes said, millions of people on the continent still lived in poverty and governments still struggled with corruption.

Harkening back to a prominent theme from his speech in Ghana in 2009, Mr Obama would emphasise that Africans must take much of the responsibility for finishing the work started by Mr Mandela and his contemporaries.

"The progress that Africa has made opens new doors, but frankly, it’s up to the leaders in Africa and particularly young people to make sure that they’re walking through those doors of opportunity," Mr Rhodes said.

Mr Obama's speech at the University of Cape Town comes nearly 50 years after Robert F. Kennedy delivered his famous "Ripple of Hope" speech from the university. Mr Kennedy spoke in Cape Town two years after Mr Mandela was sentenced to life in prison.