Obama 'deeply humbled' by Mandela prison visit
President Barack Obama was "deeply humbled" by a visit to the cell where Nelson Mandela spent years as a prisoner, in a solemn homage Sunday to the critically ill hero he was unable to see in Pretoria.
The US leader paid tribute to Mandela and other anti-apartheid inmates of Robben Island, who "refused to yield" in the face of racist white minority rule.
Obama, accompanied by his wife Michelle and young daughters Sasha and Malia, visited the bleak lime quarry where 34 anti-apartheid leaders -- including Mandela -- endured hours of backbreaking work.
He stood alone, looking out the barred window of the small damp cell where Mandela spent two thirds of his 27 years in prison, his darkest days of his detention.
After touring the sandy wind-swept island, Obama took a few minutes to write a note in the visitors book.
"On behalf of our family we're deeply humbled to stand where men of such courage faced down injustice and refused to yield," he wrote.
"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."
Mandela's continued hospitalisation has cast a pall over Obama's much awaited three-nation visit to Africa.
Obama will later make Mandela the keystone of an address at the University of Cape Town, citing his unifying legacy as a blueprint for a new generation in emerging Africa.
Mandela's illness placed Obama in a tricky political spot, forcing him to balance his desire to push for a new economic relationship with Africa, with the need to properly honour his hero, who has been in intensive care for more than three weeks.
On Saturday, Obama and his wife Michelle called Mandela's wife Graca Machel, and the president then privately visited several daughters and grandchildren of Mandela, to offer support and prayers.
But he decided against rolling up in his massive entourage at the Pretoria hospital where the 94-year-old Mandela lies, worried that he would disturb his peace.
"I expressed my hope that Madiba draws peace and comfort from the time that he is spending with loved ones," Obama said in a statement using Mandela's clan name.
Machel said she drew "strength from the support" of the Obama family.
The example of Mandela, who became South Africa's first black president, drew Obama into politics for the first time in the 1970s, putting him on a path that would lead to his own piece of history as America's first black president.
"The struggle here against apartheid, for freedom, Madiba's moral courage, his country's historic transition to a free and democratic nation, has been a personal inspiration to me," Obama said Saturday in Pretoria.
"It has been an inspiration to the world."
South African President Jacob Zuma said after talks with Obama that Mandela remained in a "critical but stable" condition with a recurring lung infection.
And he said that Obama and Mandela were "bound by history" after breaking racial barriers to rise to power.
"You both carry the dreams of millions of people in Africa," Zuma, who also spent 10 years on Robben island, told Obama.
South Africa's last apartheid president FW de Klerk meanwhile cut short a visit to Europe because of the ailing health of his co-Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Obama's warm welcome however was not universal. Riot police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at around 300 hundred anti-Obama protesters on Saturday in the township of Soweto, once a flashpoint in the anti-apartheid struggle.
His tour of Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania is aimed at changing perceptions that he has neglected Africa since his election in 2008, while also countering China's growing economic influence in the resource-rich continent.
On Sunday, a day ringing with political symbolism, the US president will walk in revered footsteps when he gives a speech at the University of Cape Town -- those of slain US presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, brother of assassinated president John F. Kennedy.
RFK gave his famed "ripple of hope" speech at the same venue in 1966, which was a call for non-violent change and equality, at a time when America was still dealing with the racial discrimination which stained its own history.
Kennedy gave the speech only two years after Mandela was sentenced to life in prison and sent to Robben Island.
Mandela, once branded a terrorist by the United States and Britain, was freed in 1990 and became president after the first fully democratic elections in 1994.
Also Sunday, Obama, accompanied on his tour by his wife and daughters Malia and Sasha, will visit an HIV/AIDS Centre named for another icon of South Africa's emancipation struggle, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
© 2013 AFP