Cobus Coetzee, Michelle Jones and Sapa-AFP
A MERE 48 words marked Barack and Michelle Obama’s visit to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years.
The US presidential couple didn’t say a word just after they left the prison – but they wrote in the museum visitors’ book.
Obama’s inscription read: “On behalf of our family, we’re deeply humbled to stand where men of such courage faced down injustice and refused to yield. The world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island, who remind us that no shackles or cells can match the strength of the human spirit.”
It was Obama’s second trip to the island. He visited it and Cape Town in 2006 while he was an Illinois senator.
Michelle Obama visited the city in 2011, with the couple’s daughters, Malia and Sasha, who are also accompanying the president on his trip.
In a speech at UCT last night, Obama said: “It’s something different bringing my children. Seeing them stand within the walls that once surrounded Nelson Mandela, I knew this was an experience they would never forget.”
Obama challenged young Africans to rise to the challenge of shoring up progress on the continent that rests on a “fragile foundation”, summoning them to fulfil the legacy of Mandela.
“Nelson Mandela showed us that one man’s courage can move the world,” Obama said.
He said the US needed to play a larger role on the continent and announced a plan, “Power Africa”, to double access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Access to electricity is
fundamental to opportunity in this day and age,” Obama said.
“It’s the connection that’s needed to plug Africa into the grid of the global economy.”
The US would invest $7 billion (R69bn) to provide “light where currently there is darkness”.
Obama said former president Mandela, whose health weighed heavily on his mind, should serve as an inspiration to the young people who filled Jameson Hall to work towards achieving positive change in South Africa and Africa.
This would positively affect the rest of the world, he said.
“Nelson Mandela showed us that one man’s courage can move the world... Your choices can make a difference.”
Obama named South Africa as one of the world’s economic centres and Africa as home to many of the fastest-growing economies.
“There’s no question Africa’s on the move, but it’s not moving fast enough for the child still languishing in poverty in forgotten townships.
“Those Africans must not be left behind.
“That’s where you come in, young people of Africa.”
Obama referred to US Senator Robert F Kennedy’s speech, “Day of Affirmation”, delivered at UCT in 1966.
Kennedy compared South Africa’s struggle with racial inequality with that in the US and called on young people to take control of the country’s future.
Obama said that without the protection of peace, opportunity and democracy could not take place.
But, he added, progress was uneven in the presence of shaky foundations and corruption, which he said a number of times was too prevalent in government.
“There’s an energy here that can’t be denied. Africa rising.”
Obama entertained the crowd, who laughed often, but his speech was at times also deeply personal, discussing his family and his start in politics.
“Some of you might know this, but I took my first step into political life because of South Africa,” he said, as the gathered crowd of about 800 clapped.
Weeks of planning and hundreds of security checks preceded the visit to Robben Island.
Guests, staff and the media were tightly controlled, while every manhole was checked.
The Obamas and their party arrived in five helicopters and visited the lime quarry first.
Struggle icon and former prisoner Ahmed Kathrada guided the Obama family around the island.
Kathrada explained the island’s history to the family, the country’s liberation history and how prisoners had dealt with the apartheid regime.
Obama told his children that South Africa was where non-violent resistance started with Mahatma Gandhi, who lived in the country for some time.
“He influenced Martin Luther King,” Obama told his children at the quarry.
At the prison only the presidential couple signed the visitors’ book. They did not say a word after they walked out of the tiny prison cell where Mandela had been incarcerated.
Obama is visiting three African countries: Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. He is expected to leave for Tanzania today.
International Relations Deputy Minister Marius Fransman and South Africa’s ambassador to the US, Ebrahim Rasool, accompanied the Obamas on their visit to Robben Island.
Rasool said Obama’s visit was at an “anxious time with Madiba in hospital”.
He said the protests against Obama were an indication that South Africa was a “mature democracy”.
“It’s not an embarrassment to South Africa, but shows our commitment to human rights and freedom of expression,” he said.
Obama also met Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu at his Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation in the city. Tutu said it was a “special joy” to welcome the US leader to “the continent of his forebears”.
“When you became the first black incumbent of the White House you don’t know what you did for our psyche,” Tutu told Obama.
“My wife sat in front of a TV with tears running down her face when she watched the celebrations in Chicago.
“So welcome home, even if you’re about to go.”
There was also a lesson in the southern African “ubuntu” philosophy of humanity towards others – with a hint of criticism about Guantanamo Bay.
“As you have been here before to Africa, you have heard us speak of something called ubuntu…
“Your success is our success. Your failure, whether you like it or not, is our failure.
“And so we want to show you that we pray for you to be a great success,” Tutu said.
“We want you to be known as having brought peace to the world, especially as one who brought an end to the anguish to all in the Middle East.
“We pray you will be known as having brought peace to all the regions where there has been strife and peace and no need for Guantanamo Bay detention centre.
“We are proud of you. You belong to us.”