President Barack Obama opened a day of remembrance and celebration on Tuesday for his personal hero Nelson Mandela, arriving in South Africa for a memorial service honouring the anti-apartheid icon who died last week at age 95.
Air Force One touched down at a military base near Johannesburg on a rainy morning. Joining Obama on the 16-hour trip from Washington was first lady Michelle Obama, former president George W Bush and his wife, Laura, and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were also scheduled to attend the memorial service, but travelled to South Africa separately.
The Obamas, the Bushes and Mrs Clinton departed the front steps of the presidential plane together, a rare grouping of a current, former and possibly future president.
Obama will be among the speakers at Tuesday’s memorial, joining tens of thousands of South Africans and dozens of dignitaries at the outdoor stadium in Johannesburg. A singing, joyous crowd was filling the stadium early on Tuesday morning despite the rainy conditions.
White House aides said Obama began crafting his 20-minute remarks for the memorial after Mandela’s passing last week. The president was expected to discuss Mandela’s impact on his own life, as well as his transformation from prisoner to president.
“He obviously is cemented in our memory as an icon, but he was an extraordinary political leader, an extraordinary leader of a movement to bring about change,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
Obama’s own political rise has drawn comparisons to Mandela. Each has the distinction of being his nation’s first black president and each was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But people close to Obama say the US president is well aware that his own experience pales in comparison to Mandela’s 27 years in prison fighting against a repressive government that brutally enforced laws that enshrined racial discrimination.
By the time Obama became president, Mandela had retired from public life. But they did have one in-person meeting, a hastily arranged 2005 encounter while Mandela was visiting Washington.
The South African leader had been encouraged to meet a young, black US senator who was a rising star in American politics and invited Obama to visit him at his hotel.
A single photo from the meeting shows the two men smiling and shaking hands, with Obama standing and Mandela sitting, his legs stretched out in front of him. The photo hangs in Obama’s personal office at the White House, as well as in Mandela’s office in Johannesburg.