WASHINGTON — A somber President Obama paid tribute Thursday to the man he credits with his political awakening, saying Nelson Mandela’s dignity and sacrifice “transformed South Africa and moved all of us.”
“He achieved more than could be expected of any man. Today he has gone home,” Obama said in brief remarks at the White House shortly after South African officials announced Mandela’s death. “We have lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth. He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages.”
The first black president of South Africa played a significant role in the coming-of-age story of the first African American U.S. president. Obama credits Mandela’s fight against apartheid for sparking his political consciousness.
Speaking before reporters Thursday, Obama recounted that “the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or policy or politics” was a college protest against apartheid.
“I would study his words and his writings. The day he was released from prison it gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears,” Obama said.
Obama’s admiration has largely been from afar.
They met once — in a Washington hotel room in 2005 when Mandela was on a speaking tour. At the last minute, a Mandela associate arranged a meeting between the aging icon and the newly elected young senator from Illinois. Obama has rarely spoken publicly of that day. After Obama was elected president, Mandela kept a photo of the encounter in his office.
In recent years, Mandela’s health restricted his travel. But the two men exchanged notes and spoke briefly on the phone. First Lady Michelle Obama visited with Mandela during her trip to South Africa in 2011.
Mandela was gravely ill this summer when the Obamas visited South Africa on their first major African tour. Although there was pressure to arrange a symbolic meeting of the two barrier-breaking politicians, Obama did not go to Mandela’s hospital bed, out of respect for Mandela's family, White House officials said.
The president and first lady met with Mandela’s family members, and spoke by phone with Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel. They also visited Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned for challenging South Africa's white minority government.
Obama also stood with his daughters in the jail cell where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in confinement and, looking out on the quarry where Mandela labored, spoke to them about the connections between South Africa and the U.S. civil rights movement.
“The idea of political nonviolence first took root here in South Africa because Mahatma Gandhi was a lawyer here in South Africa,” Obama said to his daughters. “Here is where he did his first political [activism]. When he went back to India, the principles ultimately led to Indian independence, and what Gandhi did inspired Martin Luther King.”
The president is expected to travel to South Africa for Mandela’s memorial service.
“So long as I live, I will do what I can to learn from him,” Obama said Thursday, referring to Mandela by the term of endearment that South Africans use. “To the people of South Africa, we draw strength from the example of renewal and reconciliation and resilience that you made real. A free South Africa at peace with itself — that’s an example to the world. That’s Madiba’s legacy for the nation that he loved.”
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