The True Story Behind Obama and Mandela’s Relationship

President Obama in 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa. Photo:

As we cover former President Barack Obama’s delivery of the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in South Africa, we reflect on the relationship between the late Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama.  There have been many references to the many means in which Mandela inspired Obama, and the many similarities they share.

In 2005, Mandela took what would be his last visit to the United States.  While there, he spent some time in Washington, D.C. Obama, then the junior senator representing the state of Illinois, sought a meeting with the revered Mandela.  Owing to his advanced age of 87, his calendar for the visit was tightly managed, and he reserved time only for very strategic people, such as President George W. Bush and Senator Hillary Clinton.  The barely known Obama was denied a meeting. However, Obama was determined, and continued to press hard to secure time on Mandela’s calendar. Someone told Mandela that Obama could one day be the first black president of the United States. That prediction sounded improbable at the time, but Mandela agreed to a last minute “meet and greet” with Obama – it didn’t even appear on Mandela’s official schedule.  Mandela was not entirely clear who this young man was, but afforded him a brief visit. Obama was allowed about 5-10 minutes with the icon, during which time not much substantive was discussed.

Eight years later, in 2013, Obama, then in his second term as president of the US, planned what would be his first visit to South Africa as commander in chief of the US.  Of course, he was then accorded an official visit, with ample time on Mandela’s diary. Mandela was suffering with significant cognitive impairment through age related dementia.  Still, the moment was pregnant with hope, as the spiritual connection between the two men was so substantial.

In 2013, was invited to join the White House Traveling Press Corp to travel throughout Africa with then President Obama and his family on their historic visit to the continent.  The entire press corps, especially the photographers, eagerly awaited the meeting between the two icons. Sadly, that meeting never happened.

Below we share with you the history of what took place on that day in June, 2013.  These words are taken from my blog post “The Inside Story – Traveling with the White House – Day 5.

It is a crisp, cold and clear morning in Johannesburg. We drove the 40 minutes north to Pretoria. After leaving the heat of Senegal, I am reminded of what a very different world South Africa is from West, and East, Africa. It is about 55 degrees Farenheit, and I should have worn a turtleneck.

The Union Buildings in Pretoria (the official seat of the South African government) is a reminder of the improbable transition in power that took place in this country nineteen years ago. This grand, neo-classic masterpiece, inspired by the Italian Renaissance architectural style, was built by black labor to house the white apartheid government. It took the incomparable leadership of Nelson Mandela to see this masterpiece handed over to a black majority government to occupy its storied halls.

There is a loose analogy to our White House in Washington DC.  It, too, was built with black labor to house a government that did not consider blacks as citizens. It took the improbable leadership of Barack Obama to usher in a black family to reside in that fabled residence.

And therein lays the irony, the coincidence, the tragedy, perhaps the destiny of this moment. Barack Obama has been inspired throughout his professional career by the transcendent leadership of Nelson Mandela. When Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008, it should have been a given that the two men would meet and celebrate the unique gifts that each has given to their nations, and their people. Both men ascended to lead two nations which held little prospect for a black leader when they set their eyes on the top seat. But because of circumstances in 2008, Mandela’s advanced age which prevented him from traveling overseas, and Obama’s political imperative to stay close to home, neither man could travel to the other’s country until this day.

On this day, Nelson Mandela lies in a hospital, by any measure, on what is undeniably one of the last days of his life. At the same time, Barack Obama, is received on his first visit to South Africa as the commander of the United States. While he is officially only the president of the United States, he is spiritually owned by black people throughout the world, and especially here in South Africa.

It seems almost predestined for this to be the moment when the baton is passed from Mandela to Obama, to carry on his legacy as a great leader who inspires blacks and people of all races, whose influence and significance stretches beyond the borders that he governs.

It is sad that Mandela’s well-being did not sustain itself long enough for the meeting that both men imagined, but the bond between the two men is immortally eternal.

Teresa Clarke
Teresa H. Clarke is the Chairman, CEO and Executive Editor of LLC.