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Mandela, Obama's inspiration, a trailblazer for freedom and civil rights

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Mandela, Obama's inspiration, a trailblazer for freedom and civil rights


Nelson Mandela is respected and loved far and wide, well beyond South Africa’s borders, to a degree only ever enjoyed by a handful of leaders. His perseverance in the face of historic difficulties has been a source of inspiration, not least for Barack Obama.

On Thursday in Dakar, Senegal, the US president paid Mandela homage and underscored that his legacy was for posterity.

Obama said: “I’ve had the privilege of meeting Madiba, speaking to him – and he’s a personal hero. But I don’t think I’m unique in that regard; I think he’s a hero for the world.”

Mandela’s clan name is “Madiba”.

He was imprisoned with a life sentence on a treason conviction in 1964 apartheid South Africa, for conspiring to overthrow the minority white government.

Obama visited his cell in the high security island Robben Island prison in 2006, while still a senator. They had met in person, in Washington in 2005, for five minutes – Mandela by then retired – and that was the only time, although they have spoken at others over the phone. Obama now had hoped to come face-to-face with him on this week’s trip to Africa.

Obama in Senegal reiterated that Mandela’s role in the apartheid revolution inspired him and others like him in the US at a young age. Stark parallels have been drawn between the fight for civil rights in South Africa and in segregated America.

In the 1960s, the march for rights was gathering momentum in the US, when Obama was still a child. He got involved in politics as a student in the 1970s, and in the anti-apartheid movement in ’79-‘80. Mandela is a generation older, yet the two share the trait of both becoming their country’s first black presidents.

For Mandela it was in 1994, four years after his release from 27 years in prison. Fifteen years later, in 2009… “I Barack Hussein Obama solemnly swear…”

Obama would later be modest about his accomplishments, but he, too, had just made history. Both men also won the Nobel Prize for Peace.

When Nelson Mandela got it, his mission was largely accomplished, while the younger man he inspired was just beginning his presidency.

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