Obama to honour personal inspiration Mandela

President Barack Obama speaks in the briefing room of the White House in Washington on Thursday, Dec 5, 2013, about the death of Nelson Mandela. When Mr Obama joins a roll-call of world leaders at next week's memorials for the late South African
President Barack Obama speaks in the briefing room of the White House in Washington on Thursday, Dec 5, 2013, about the death of Nelson Mandela. When Mr Obama joins a roll-call of world leaders at next week's memorials for the late South African President he will honour a personal inspiration. -- PHOTO: AP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - When United States (US) President Barack Obama joins a roll-call of world leaders at next week's memorials for late South African president Nelson Mandela he will honour a personal inspiration.

Many international statesmen have been keen to associate themselves with the revered anti-apartheid fighter, but Mr Obama can cite a convincing precedent for claiming Mr Mandela's influence.

America's first black president paid tribute to South Africa's first democratic leader by penning the foreword to Mr Mandela's 2010 essay Conversations With Myself. In his contribution, he described how before and after his own election he had spoken several times with Mr Mandela and had admired his humanity as much as the symbol he had become.

"Those are the moments when I am reminded that underneath the history that has been made, there is a human being who chose hope over fear - progress over the prisons of the past," Mr Obama wrote.

"And I am reminded that, even as he has become a legend, to know the man - Nelson Mandela - is to respect him even more."

Even before Mr Obama got to know Mr Mandela the man, his struggle against South Africa's racist regime had already made him a model for a young mixed-race Hawaiian seeking an identity.

Writing in his own memoir, Dreams From My Father, Mr Obama described how he came to replace his absent African father with an idealised image inspired by civil rights and anti-colonial figures.

"It was into my father's image, the black man, son of Africa, that I'd packed all the attributes I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois and Mandela," he wrote.

When Mr Mandela's death was announced on Thursday, Mr Obama took to the White House podium to expand his tribute beyond Mr Mandela as a personal hero and to encompass his historic meaning.

In doing so, he implicitly drew parallels with two more stars in his personal moral universe: Abraham Lincoln, the president who freed America's slaves, and civil rights champion Martin Luther King.

"He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages," he said, with a nod to one of the first tributes to Lincoln after his assassination.

And, in a paraphrase of King, he hailed Mr Mandela as a man who "took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice."

Unlike the previous generation of African American political leaders, such as former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, the younger Mr Obama did not enter political life with King's Civil Rights struggle.

Mr Obama was only three years old when his predecessor Lyndon Johnson passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But when Mr Obama was a student in the 1970s, as he recalled on Thursday, the protests against South Africa's apartheid regime served as his first introduction to campaign politics.

Mr Obama studied Mr Mandela's writings and said the "day that he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they're guided by their hopes and not by their fears."

The pair also met, once, briefly in 2005 when as a young US senator, Mr Obama sought out Mr Mandela's Georgetown hotel during a visit by the retired president to Washington.

Mr Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will travel to South Africa next week to pay their respects and "participate in memorial events" during the country's week of mourning, the White House said.