DAKAR, Senegal -- With 94-year-old Nelson Mandela possibly nearing death, President Obama on Thursday reflected on the role the civil rights icon had played in spurring him into political activism, saying he “gave me a sense of what is possible in the world.”
As a 19-year-old at Occidental College in Los Angeles, Obama became involved in the anti-apartheid movement when Mandela, a revered leader in the fight against white-minority rule, was imprisoned.
“I was inspired by what was taking place in South Africa,” Obama said at a news conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall, in which he praised the Supreme Court’s decisions on same-sex marriage. “I think at that time I didn’t necessarily imagine that Nelson Mandela might be released, but I had read his writings and his speeches, and I understood that this was somebody who believed in that basic principle I just talked about -- treating people equally -- and was willing to sacrifice his life for that belief.”
PHOTOS: South Africans hold vigil outside hospital treating Nelson Mandela
The former South African president, who spent 27 years as a political prisoner, remained in critical condition in a Pretoria hospital, as the world prepared for his death. “Our thoughts and prayers right now are with the people of South Africa and, more specifically, the Mandela family,” the president said.
Obama’s three-country, weeklong tour of Africa is scheduled to take him to Johannesburg on Friday, although Mandela’s death probably would scramble that schedule. Already the grim vigil has become a cloud over the trip, Obama's first major tour to the continent since taking office.
The president has met Mandela once, as a senator, when the African statesman visited Washington in 2005. The president often cites Mandela as a political idol and inspiration. Obama’s 1995 memoir recounted some of his activism at Occidental, which he wrote initially began as a “lark” but grew into more serious work organizing events on campus. Obama counts his brief remarks at a rally on campus as his first speech, an experience he says left him wanting to say more.
“I’ve had the privilege of meeting Madiba and speaking to him,” Obama said at the presidential palace in Dakar, using Mandela’s nickname. “He’s a personal hero, but I don’t think I’m unique in that regard. I think he’s a hero for the world. And if and when he passes from this place, one thing I think we’ll all know is that his legacy is one that will linger on throughout the ages.”
The president, a law school student when Mandela was released from prison, said he was particularly struck by his remarks about reconciliation.
“For him to say, I embrace my former captors and my former oppressors, and believe in one nation and believe in judging people on the basis of their character and not their color,” Obama said, “it gave me a sense of what is possible in the world when righteous people, when people of goodwill work together on behalf of a larger cause.”