"You showed us how a prisoner can become president. You showed how adversaries can reconcile,” Obama said, in a speech at the University of Cape Town, the signature event of his weeklong trip to Africa. “If there’s any country in the world that shows the power of human beings to effect change, this is the one.”
Obama’s words were the coda to a day spent honoring the man he calls a personal hero and credits with inspiring his first steps into politics. Earlier Sunday the president and his family walked the stark lime quarry where the civil rights icon once hunched in backbreaking work and the spare cell where he spent 18 years confined for fighting a government ruled by a white minority.
Obama’s tour of the prison at Robben Island served as the symbolic union between the first African American president of the United States and the first black president of South Africa when there could be no face-to-face meeting. Mandela, 94, remained hospitalized in critical condition in Pretoria on Sunday, with his wife, Graca Machel at his bedside and much of the world preparing for his death.
Mandela’s illness nearly overshadowed Obama primary task in his first major tour in the continent as president -- answering those who say he has neglected a region poised for growth and rapidly shifting away from U.S. influence.
Obama announced Sunday that his administration would aim to double the number of people with access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly two-thirds of the population lives off any power grid. He committed $7 billion over five years to the “Power Africa” initiative, federal money that will add to private investment and commitments from six African countries, he said. The first phase will aim to expand access to electricity to more than 20 million households, the White House.
“I’m calling for America to up our game when it comes to Africa,” Obama said, adding that he would also be sending more trade missions, inviting African leaders to a summit in the U.S. next year and encouraging more exchanges with young people.
While U.S. influence has waned on the continent, other countries -- most notably China -- have rushed in with new investments. Obama argued Sunday that he welcomed such competition for Africa’s resources. “We want everybody paying attention to what’s going on here,” he said. But Obama is also under pressure to make the case that the U.S. is a ready, more reliable partner for African governments and workers.
On Sunday he outlined a case that relied heavily on the familiar promise to bring democratic institutions with U.S. business. Obama said he would invest “not in strong men but in strong institutions” and respect women’s rights. Obama nostalgically evoked U.S. ideals, repeatedly referencing Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s early call for racial equality, delivered at the same university in 1966.
But Obama also has been forced to addressed present concerns, including criticism over his counter-terrorism policies that have sparked some protests during his visit. Obama heard a pointed word on his security policies and his failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center from Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Sunday as he visited the anti-apartheid leader’s health clinic on Sunday. Africans consider him one of their own, Tutu told the president.
“Your success is our success. Your failure, whether you like it our not, is our failure.” Tutu said. “We want you to be known as having brought peace to the world.”
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