JOHANNESBURG — The possibility of a meeting between the two historic figures — the first black president of the United States and the first black president of South Africa — was tantalizingly close. But with Nelson Mandela fighting for his life in a Pretoria hospital, President Obama abandoned his hope for a visit Saturday.
Instead, Obama used every stop here to talk in emotional and sweeping terms about what Mandela meant to the world, and to him.
“I expressed my hope that Madiba draws peace and comfort from the time that he is spending with loved ones,” Obama said after a meeting with some of Mandela’s children and grandchildren, using the clan name by which Mandela is widely known.
“I also reaffirmed the profound impact that his legacy has had in building a free South Africa, and in inspiring people around the world — including me,’’ Obama said. “That’s a legacy that we must all honor in our own lives.”
In an earlier news conference with South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, he also spoke about one of Mandela’s greatest gifts: his ability to see beyond his own considerable legend.
“Despite how revered he was,” Obama said, Mandela understood that government must be “bigger than just one person, even one of the greatest people in history. What an incredible lesson that is.”
Obama had built his Africa trip months ago on the hope of meeting with Mandela, whom he has called a personal hero. Like many South Africans, he was eager to ensure that Mandela’s legacy will live on through younger generations.
He brought his two daughters on the trip, even as many locals spent Saturday taking their own children to makeshift memorials outside the Pretoria hospital where Mandela, 94, lay in critical condition and outside the Johannesburg home where he lived much of the time after his release from 27 years in apartheid prisons.
Obama not only praised Mandela at the press conference, but in his first visit here as president also hailed South Africa’s historic integration from white racist rule as a shining beacon for the world.
“The struggle here against apartheid for freedom, Madiba’s moral courage, this country’s historic transition to a free and democratic nation has been a personal inspiration to me; it has been an inspiration to the world,” he said.
The meeting with 10 of Mandela’s family members replaced the meeting with Mandela himself and was arranged according to the family’s wishes, the White House said.
On Saturday afternoon, the presidential limousine slipped past a gate at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, leaving reporters behind for the 25-minute meeting before Obama headed to a town-hall-style meeting with students in Soweto. In a statement after the family meeting, Obama said he had also spoken by phone with Graça Machel, Mandela’s wife, who has been spending most of her time at her husband’s bedside.
Mandela was admitted to the hospital three weeks ago for a chronic lung infection. His condition turned critical, according to South African officials, just as Obama headed to Africa for a weeklong trip that started in Senegal.
The US president still plans to salute Mandela’s life with a visit Sunday to Robben Island, the prison where Mandela spent most of his incarceration.
White House officials said Friday night that there was no change in the schedule, although Obama promised to “gauge the situation” based on Mandela’s condition and his family’s wishes.
Obama noted that he had visited Robben Island as a senator. He said he looked forward to taking his daughters to Mandela’s tiny prison cell to “teach them the history of that place and this country, and to help them understand not only how those lessons apply to their own lives,” but also more broadly.
After traveling to Cape Town on Sunday, Obama will deliver a speech to university students that aides said would be built around themes that related to Mandela’s legacy. Obama will end his trip in Tanzania on Monday and Tuesday.
Obama began his first full day in South Africa in a private meeting with Zuma, who made note of the ill health of the nation’s beloved leader.
Zuma pointed to the symbolism of the moment, saying Obama and Mandela are “bound by history as the first black presidents” of their countries.