In his own effort to carve out a piece of that legacy, Obama announced a new US-led initiative to double access to electric power across Africa, vowing to help bring “light where there is currently darkness”.
The President, the first African American US head of state, said Mandela’s struggle against apartheid paved the way for freedom and opportunity well beyond South Africa’s borders.
“Nelson Mandela showed us that one man’s courage can move the world,” Obama said during an evening speech yesterday at the University of Cape Town.
Obama’s remarks capped an emotional day that included a visit to the Robben Island prison where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. The 94-year-old anti-apartheid hero has been in hospital for most of this month and is said to be in a critical condition.
In deeply personal remarks, he spoke of standing in Mandela’s cramped prison cell with his two young daughters, Malia and Sasha.
“Seeing them stand within the walls that once surrounded Nelson Mandela, I knew this was an experience they would never forget,” he said. “I knew they now appreciated a little bit more that Madiba and others had made for freedom,” he added, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
Obama’s address came nearly 50 years after Robert F Kennedy delivered his famous “Ripple of Hope” speech at the same university, an address that Obama aides said helped inspire the president’s remarks. Kennedy’s speech, delivered soon after Mandela was sentenced to prison, called on young people to launch a fight against injustice, creating ripples of hope that would “build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance”.
Laying out his own vision for development on the continent where his father was born, Obama said the US seeks “a partnership that empowers Africans to access greater opportunity in their own lives”. He dismissed the notion that the US sought to meddle in Africa’s affairs, saying his country would benefit from the continent’s ability to manage its own affairs — economically, politically and militarily.
“Ultimately I believe Africans should make up their own minds about what serves African interests,” he said. “We trust your judgment, the judgment of ordinary people. We believe that when you control your destiny — if you got a handle on your governments — then governments will promote freedom and opportunity, because that will serve you.”
The White House says Obama’s electricity initiative, dubbed “Power Africa”, symbolises the type of cross-continent ventures the president seeks. Backed by $7bn in US investment, the power programme will focus on expanding access to electricity in six African countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania. Private companies — including General Electric and Symbion Power — will make an additional $9bn in commitments.