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Obama, family visit cell that became Mandela’s crucible

President cites legacy of sacrifice in later speech

President Obama and his wife, Michelle, toured the prison where South Africa’s first black president spent 18 years.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama and his wife, Michelle, toured the prison where South Africa’s first black president spent 18 years.

CAPE TOWN — In the forward to Nelson Mandela’s 2010 book of letters, President Obama wrote that “even when little sunlight shined into that Robben Island cell, he could see a better future — one worthy of sacrifice.”

On Sunday, Obama stood in that same, tiny prison cell — now a monument to Mandela, South Africa’s first black president — and showed his wife and two daughters the place where Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years during his long campaign to end the policies of racial apartheid and oppression in his country.

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Later, Obama again invoked the legacy of Mandela, 94, who remained in critical condition at a Pretoria hospital, during a speech to the African people he delivered from the University of Cape Town.

In the speech, he called Mandela the ultimate testament to the process of peaceful change and said his daughters now understood his legacy better. “Seeing them stand within the walls that once surrounded Nelson Mandela, I knew this was an experience they would never forget,” Obama said.

Using the clan name that many people fondly use to refer to Mandela, the president said his daughters appreciate “the sacrifices that Madiba and others made for freedom.” Obama also recalled a speech delivered there by Robert F. Kennedy in June 1966. Kennedy hailed the push for civil rights in the United States, in South Africa and around the world.

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“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance,” Kennedy said.

The symbolism of Obama’s visit was impossible to miss: America’s first black president, whose wife is a descendant of African slaves, said this week that he might not have been elected were it not for Mandela’s ability to endure imprisonment and emerge to take power without bitterness or recrimination.

In a visitor’s book in a prison courtyard, Obama wrote that his family was “humbled to stand where men of such courage faced down injustice and refused to yield.”

“The world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island,” he added, “who remind us that no shackles or cells can match the strength of the human spirit.”

For Obama, the visit to Robben Island, just off Cape Town, was part of an African trip that has been overshadowed to some extent by concerns about Mandela’s health. Instead of visiting the former leader, Obama chose to meet with Mandela’s family Saturday.

Obama had been to Robben Island before, as a senator. In his forward to Mandela’s book, “Conversations With Myself,” he recalled trying to “transport myself back to those days when President Mandela was still Prisoner 466/64 — a time when the success of his struggle was by no means a certainty.”

He also toured the limestone quarry where Mandela and other political prisoners were forced to work. Obama’s daughters, Malia and Sasha, listened as their tour guide, Ahmed Kathrada, who served prison time with Mandela, described the area.

Obama talked to his daughters about the history of the prison island and of the role it played in the political movement of nonviolence started by Gandhi.

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