30 June 2013
US President Barack Obama made a moving toast to South Africa’s ailing former president, Nelson Mandela, during a dinner held in his honour in Pretoria on Saturday.
Guests at the dinner observed a moment of silence for Mandela, who has been in hospital in Pretoria since June 8 receiving treatment for a lung infection.
Although he shared light moments at the dinner, Obama said “our minds and hearts are not fully here because a piece of us, a piece of our heart, is with a man and family not far from here”.
‘We are inspired by you’
He offered Mandela’s family words of comfort, praising the 94-year-old statesman as one of history’s greatest.
Obama has sought to amplify US-Africa trade and commercial ties through his three-nation tour of Africa, which began in Senegal on Wednesday. However, concerns over Mandela’s health have weighed heavily not only on South Africa, but also on the US president.
Obama said the sacrifices made by Mandela and South Africa’s freedom fighters had resonated in the United States, which had its own civil rights movement.
“I wouldn’t be here if not for freedom fighters … We are inspired by you to believe that anything is possible.”
Obama went on to recite the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, which speaks of the triumph of the human spirit and which Mandela often turned to in his cell on Robben Island.
Raising a glass, Obama proposed a toast to the man he said “has always been the master of his fate, who taught us that we can be masters of ours”.
Meeting with family, phone call to Graca
Earlier in the day, Obama took time out of his schedule to visit Mandela’s family at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg. He also had a telephone conversation with Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, who was with Mandela in hospital.
Doctors have described Madiba’s condition as stable, but critical.
In a statement issued after their phone conversation, Machel said she had drawn strength from the support of the Obamas.
“Having taken the time to telephone me to express their solidarity and meet our children, they have added a touch of personal warmth that is characteristic of the Obama family,” Machel said. “I am humbled by their comfort and messages of strength and inspiration, which I have already conveyed to Madiba.”
After spending private time with members of Mandela’s family, Obama then viewed a display of materials from Mandela’s private papers. He also wished the family, the Nelson Mandela charities and all South Africans well at this difficult time.
Zuma, speaking at Saturday’s dinner, expressed gratitude to Obama and his wife Michelle for their prayers and good wishes for Mandela.
‘A personal hero to all of us here’
“As you have correctly pointed out, he is also a personal hero to all of us here tonight. And so, as we celebrate our friendship, we are also keeping Madiba in our thoughts,” Zuma said.
“He reminds us of so many special leaders who have played crucial roles in our intertwined histories, such as Martin Luther King and Oliver Reginald Tambo,” Zuma said. “They taught us that freedom comes at a price, and it needs a continuous collective effort to ensure its rewards.”
Zuma said it was significant that the Obamas, who were due to travel to Cape Town on Sunday morning with their daughters Malia and Sasha, would be making a trip to Robben Island.
“Your lovely children need to know what Madiba and all freedom fighters were subjected to. In this way, as future leaders, they will be able to build a better world, in which no human being would be subjected to such violation of freedom, basic human rights and dignity.”
Earlier in the day, following talks with Zuma at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Obama told a press conference that the thoughts of the American people and people around the world were with Mandela and his family, adding that the outpouring of love for Madiba showed what he meant to South Africa and the world.
Obama, Mandela ‘bound by history’
“The triumph of Mandela speaks of something deep in the human spirit,” Obama said, describing Mandela as his personal inspiration and a sterling example of the “power of principle”.
He said it was great to see what was happening in South Africa in terms of unity and justice when other regions around the world were mired in conflict.
Zuma, also speaking after their meeting, said Mandela “remains critical but is now stable”, adding that the world should continue to pray for his good health.
Zuma said Obama and Mandela were “bound by history, as the first black presidents of your respective countries … Thus, you both carry the dreams of millions of people in Africa and the diaspora.”
Asked if Mandela would be happy with where South Africa was, Zuma told the packed press conference: “Definitely, yes”. He said the government was pursuing the policies and dreams of Mandela.
On 18 July, Mandela’s 95th birthday, South Africa and the rest of the world will celebrate Nelson Mandela International Day, which encourages people to spend 67 minutes doing something of benefit to others.