Johannesburg - US President Barack Obama hopes to see Nelson Mandela when he visits South Africa this week – but only if Mandela’s health permits and the former statesman’s family approves.
Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said this in a telephone press conference from Washington this week. He said Mandela was one of Obama’s personal heroes and he had been honoured to meet him in Washington in 2005.
“He was very moved that Nelson Mandela called him after the 2008 election and spoke to him several times in the years that followed.”
Rhodes said that during his trip Obama would pay tribute to Mandela’s contribution not only to South Africa, but to Africa and the world.
He said Obama’s visit to Robben Island “will be an important and powerful symbol at this time when the world has Nelson Mandela in their prayers”.
But Rhodes said Obama would be “very deferential” to Mandela’s family about a possible visit.
“Ultimately, we want whatever is in the best interest of his health and the peace of mind of the Mandela family. And so we’ll be driven by their own determinations in that regard.”
Rhodes was quizzed about the high cost of Obama’s trip to three African countries, South Africa, Senegal and Tanzania – estimated at between $60 million (R610m) and $100m – in an official memo leaked to the Washington Post.
It said Obama would have extraordinary security including an aircraft carrier accompanying him so that fighter jets could escort Air Force One.
US officials have suggested this report is exaggerated in some areas.
Rhodes said he did not have an exact figure on the costs and that the White House didn’t control them as most were determined by the Secret Service.
But he said the trip was worth the cost as Africa was a rapidly growing region of increasing importance to the US.
“Several of the fastest-growing economies in the world are in Africa. And if Africa does take off, economically, you’re going to have a rapidly growing middle class and market for US goods.”
Other countries such as China, Brazil and Turkey were “getting in the game in Africa and if the US is not leading in Africa, we’re going to fall behind in a very important region of the world”, he said.
But Rhodes was also asked why Obama had not undertaken a major visit to Africa before – apart from his visit to just Ghana during his first term. He said part of the reason was that many of Obama’s visits to other regions had been built around anchor summits he attended which was not the case in Africa.
But Obama had not neglected Africa. He had brought together democratic African leaders in the White House and had increased engagement with Africa through ramping up its African policies.
Obama’s senior director for Africa Grant Harris rejected a suggestion that Obama’s main focus on Africa had been on increasing America’s military and security presence, largely through its controversial Africa Command (Africom).
He said in an interview with The Sunday Independent that Africom’s focus was not on unilateral US action but on building partnerships with African countries to tackle shared regional and international threats.
For example, the US was working with and helping to equip and train African countries to tackle the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa, al-Shabaab in Somalia and insurgents in Mali.
Rhodes shrugged off an attempt by South Africa’s Muslim Lawyers Association to have Obama arrested in this country under South Africa’s International Criminal Court Act for alleged war crimes perpetrated through civilian casualties of drone attacks against terrorists in different countries, including in Africa.
He said that the White House understood the different opinions that had been expressed in South Africa and around the world in the ongoing debate about counter-terrorism.
“But we do not expect it to be a focal point of this visit.”
He added that the US had worked with all the countries Obama would be visiting and others in its counter-terrorism efforts.