PRETORIA, South Africa -- President Obama and South African President Jacob Zuma traded tributes to an ailing Nelson Mandela on Saturday during a wide-ranging news conference that exposed friction over international justice, diplomacy and security in the post-Mandela era.
Speaking after a private meeting, the two leaders repeatedly evoked the legacy of the beloved former South African leader. Zuma declared that Obama and Mandela were “bound by history” as the first black presidents of their respective countries.
Obama offered less effusive praise of Zuma and his government, remarking that the international outpouring of concern for the 94-year-old Mandela is evidence of a “yearning for justice and dignity that transcends the boundaries of race, class, faith and country. That’s what Nelson Mandela represents and what South Africa, at its best, can represent to the world.”
Mandela remained in critical but stable condition, Zuma told reporters. Offering a somewhat optimistic view, the South African leader said he held out hope that Mandela would “very soon” be released from the hospital where he was treated for a lung infection.
Mandela’s illness has cast a pall over Obama’s first trip as president to the continent’s largest country, economically. His hopes to promote trade, declare his hope for a “rising Africa” and reassert U.S. influence here are likely to be overshadowed by the world’s interest in Mandela’s grave health.
Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will not be visiting Mandela during their three-day trip to South Africa, the White House confirmed, but President Obama met with members of the Mandela family instead at the Mandela Center of Memory, the former president’s private foundation in Johannesburg.
The decision not to visit Mandela in the hospital was made “out of deference to Nelson Mandela’s peace and comfort and the family’s wishes,” a White House official said. Obama met with two of Mandela’s daughters, Makaziwe (Maki) Mandela and Zindzi Mandela Hlongwane, and eight of his grandchildren.
“Today I had the privilege of meeting with members of the Mandela family at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, South Africa, and spoke by telephone with Mrs. Graça Machel, who remained by her husband's side in the hospital in Pretoria,” Obama said in a statement.
“I expressed my hope that [Mandela] draws peace and comfort from the time that he is spending with loved ones, and also expressed my heartfelt support for the entire family as they work through this difficult time. 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.”
Obama and Zuma met privately at the grand Union Buildings compound overlooking Pretoria, the site of Mandela’s 1994 inauguration as the first black president of a nation long ruled by a white minority.
Obama and Zuma said the meeting confirmed their strong direct ties, but both acknowledged disputes at the United Nations and tensions over U.S. statements to the International Criminal Court. Zuma was critical of the NATO bombing campaign in Libya in 2011, saying that when South Africa voted for the U.N. resolution approving a no-fly zone to protect civilians it had not intended to authorize regime change.
The leader has since called for reforms at the international body and is seeking a permanent seat on the security council. Obama remained noncommittal on support for such a bid. “I think the United Nations structure is going to have to be updated. How we do that is complicated,” he said. “I will say this, that an extension of, let’s say, the security council in which the continent of Africa had no representation would be odd.”
The leaders also discussed the new leadership in Kenya, where the new president and vice president are facing war crimes changes before the International Criminal Court. Obama acknowledged that the political situation made it not the right time to visit the country, where his father was born.
Many Kenyans have called Obama’s choice a snub, arguing that it is hypocritical, especially given that the U.S. refuses to submit to the court. Obama argued that U.S. supports the court’s work and disputed that it focuses disproportionately on Africa.
Later in the day, Obama was due to speak with young people in Soweto, the sprawling Johannesburg slum that was a hotbed of the revolution of which Mandela was a leader.