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President Obama met Nelson Mandela in 2005, when he was a senator from Illinois and speaks of him with glowing terms. Many Africans and Americans had hoped that the president’s trip to Africa would provide an opportunity for the first American president of African descent to meet with the iconic hero of the anti-apartheid struggle. Under these circumstances Nelson Mandela’s apparently rapidly deteriorating health poses particular challenges for the American president. There is speculation in the American and African media that should Mandela die in the next few days, it would overshadow the president’s first significant Africa trip.
From the first, the Obama team has been commendably sensitive. Spokespeople of Obama’s trip have said that President Obama would follow the wishes of the Mandela family with respect to any meeting between the two presidents, it is uncertain whether a visit will be possible. Upon his arrival in Senegal, President Obama recalled Mandela’s great contributions to Africa and to the cause of non-racial democracy. He said Mandela is in the Obamas’ prayers. When he is in Cape Town, President Obama is scheduled to visit Robben Island, the site of Mandela’s long imprisonment under apartheid, and he is visiting a community health center with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, perhaps the second most iconic figure after Mandela of the anti-apartheid struggle. The Obama team’s restraint has been in contrast to a media circus around the former South African president’s hospitalization that is grating on many South Africans. According to the media, Mandela’s hospital is now surrounded by armed guards, and large numbers of well-wishers are leaving notes and tributes along the perimeter.
President Obama travels to South Africa the evening of June 28, with the formal arrival ceremony in Pretoria the morning of June 29.