Johannesburg • The possibility of a meeting between the two historic figures — the first black president of the United States and the first black president of South Africa — was so tantalizingly close. But with Nelson Mandela fighting for his life in a Pretoria hospital, President Barack Obama abandoned his hope for a visit and instead on Saturday used every stop here to talk in emotional and sweeping terms about what Mandela meant to the world, and to him.
“I expressed my hope that Madiba draws peace and comfort from the time that he is spending with loved ones,” Obama said, using the clan name by which Mandela is widely known, after a meeting with some of Mandela’s children and grandchildren. “I also reaffirmed the profound impact that his legacy has had in building a free South Africa, and in inspiring people around the world - including me. That’s a legacy that we must all honor in our own lives.”
In an earlier news conference with South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, he also had spoken about one of Mandela’s greatest gifts: his ability to see beyond his own considerable legend.
“Despite how revered he was,” Obama said, Mandela understood that government must be “bigger than just one person, even one of the greatest people in history. What an incredible lesson that is.”
Obama had built his Africa trip months ago on the hope of meeting with Mandela, whom he has called a personal inspiration. Like many South Africans, he was also eager to ensure that Mandela’s legacy will live on through younger generations. He brought his two daughters on the trip, even as many locals spent Saturday taking their own children to makeshift memorials outside the Pretoria hospital where Mandela, 94, lay in critical condition and the Johannesburg home where he lived much of his time after his release from 27 years in apartheid prisons.
Herschelle Sigudla went to the hospital on a brilliantly sunny South African winter morning with his wife and two teenagers to pay their respects.
“We were in university during the struggle,” said Sigudla, 43, a physiotherapist, referring to himself and his wife, Pinky, 39, a radiologist. “He inspired us to look forward to the new South Africa.”
Sigudla and his family sparkled with the confidence and prosperity of the new South Africa’s affluent, well-educated black middle class. With his arms around them, he said: “We wanted to be here for our kids as well. This is history. One day they will learn it in school, and we want them to be able to say, ‘We were there.’”
Obama praised Mandela as “one of the greatest people in history” and hailed South Africa’s historic integration from white racist rule as a shining beacon for the world.
“The struggle here against apartheid for freedom, Madiba’s moral courage, this country’s historic transition to a free and democratic nation has been a personal inspiration to me. It has been an inspiration to the world,” he said.
The meeting with Mandela’s family replaced the meeting with Mandela himself and was arranged according to the family’s wishes, the White House said.
On Saturday afternoon, the presidential limousine slipped past a gate at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, leaving reporters behind for the 25-minute meeting before Obama headed to a town-hall-style meeting with students in Soweto. In a statement after the meeting, Obama said he had also spoken by phone with Graça Machel, Mandela’s wife, who has been spending most of her time at her husband’s bedside.
The Centre of Memory will be the institution that seeks to keep Mandela’s legacy alive after he dies. The sleek glass-and-steel building lies just beside a roaring freeway in the upscale Houghton section of Johannesburg, not far from Mandela’s Johannesburg home.
A steady stream of mostly white well-wishers gathered outside that home Saturday, leaving flowers or inscriptions on small colored rocks clustered under trees outside the closed gates. One note, left under a tree, said: “Madiba, we drove across town without having to get permission. We live where we can, not where we are told to. All because of you and other heroes. Thank you, Lucien, Joelene, Ava and Luke.”
Machel, making a rare public appearance since Mandela’s latest bout of illness, emerged from her vehicle to thank a small group clustered outside the gate.
“I just wanted to say thank you,” she said, accompanied by security guards, before getting back into her car and driving off. “All these messages you are compiling, it means so much to us. Every day he is getting well. So you should know that the message is getting across. Thank you so much.”
Mandela has been ill since being admitted to the hospital three weeks ago for a chronic lung infection. His condition turned critical, according to South African officials, just as Obama headed to Africa for a weeklong trip.
The U.S. president still plans to salute Mandela’s life with a visit Sunday to Robben Island, the prison where Mandela spent most of his incarceration. White House officials said Friday night that there was no change in the schedule, although Obama promised to “gauge the situation” based on Mandela’s condition and his family’s wishes.
Obama noted that he had visited Robben Island as a senator. He said he looked forward to taking his daughters to Mandela’s tiny prison cell to “teach them the history of that place and this country, and to help them understand not only how those lessons apply to their own lives,” but also more broadly.
Obama began his first full day in South Africa in a private meeting with Zuma, who noted that the talks had taken place “against the background of the ill health of our beloved former president.” Zuma pointed to the symbolism, saying Obama and Mandela are “bound by history as the first black presidents of your countries.”
Afterward, Obama told reporters from both countries that his top priority for Africa was to help the governments here to establish more stable and transparent democracies and to promote greater trade and investment that will help life the economies of both places.
“I’m here in Africa because I think the United States needs to engage in a continent full of promise and possibility,” Obama said, dismissing a question about whether America has fallen behind China and other countries in outreach to Africa. “I think it’s good for the United States, whatever others do.”
Obama said the legacy of the former South African president would be to inspire other countries to reach beyond their internal disputes and crises to seize opportunity.
“Nelson Mandela showed what is possible and the people of South Africa have shown what’s possible when a priority is placed on constitutions and rule of law and respect for human dignity and that all people are treated equal,” Obama said.
Outside Mandela’s house, South Africans were also discussing what might happen after his death. “According to a lot of black people I spoke to through my staff, they all fear an eruption of violence,” said Laurence Hodes, who lives in the same neighborhood and had come with two of her children. “But I don’t think so. This is history.”
For others the visit was an emotional experience. Diana Anderson, a local resident, arrived with her two young children, one of whom peppered her with questions as they read the cards stacked under a tree.
“Yes, he’s still at the doctor’s. He’s not feeling well,” Anderson told her 2-year-old son, Rupert, as he held his hand.
“Why?” asked her son.
Anderson wiped away tears as she carried her children back to her vehicle. “It feels like he’s dead already,” she said. “Which is terrible.”