Julie Pace

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA: Challenging African youth to seize a “moment of great promise,” President Barack Obama declared Sunday that the future of the young and growing continent still rests in ailing South African leader Nelson Mandela’s vision for equality and opportunity. Seeking to carve out his own piece of that legacy, Obama unveiled an ambitious initiative to double electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa, vowing to bring “light where there is darkness.”

The president’s address at the University of Cape Town capped an emotionally charged day in this picturesque coastal city, including a solemn visit to the Robben Island prison where Mandela was confined for 18 of his 27 years in captivity. Obama stood stoically with his family in Mandela’s cramped cell and peered across the lime quarry where Mandela toiled each day, causing the damage to his lungs that led to his latest hospital stint.

“Nelson Mandela showed us that one man’s courage can move the world,” Obama said during his evening speech at the university. He was flanked by a diverse array of students, underscoring Mandela’s vision for a unified “rainbow nation” for the country once led by a white racist government.

In the flagship address of his weeklong trip to Africa, Obama outlined a U.S. policy toward the continent that focuses on increasing the region’s ability to support itself economically, politically and militarily. Harkening back to a prominent theme from his 2009 speech in Ghana — Obama’s only other trip to Africa as president — he said Africans must take much of the responsibility for achieving that goal, although he pledged American assistance.

“Ultimately I believe Africans should make up their own minds about what serves African interests,” he said. “We trust your judgment, the judgment of ordinary people. We believe that when you control your destiny, if you got a handle on your governments, then governments will promote freedom and opportunity, because that will serve you.”

American aid

Obama’s address came nearly 50 years after Robert F. Kennedy delivered his famous speech at the same university. Kennedy’s speech, delivered soon after Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, called on young people to launch a fight against injustice, creating ripples of hope that would “build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Much has changed in South Africa since Kennedy addressed the nation. The apartheid regime crumbled under intense internal and external pressure. Mandela was elected as his country’s first black president following his release from prison. And South Africa has rapidly become continent’s economic and political powerhouse.

But Obama said that progress, in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent, rests on a “fragile foundation.” In order to solidify the gains, Obama called on Africans to focus on three priorities: expanding opportunity, promoting democracy and supporting peace.

A cornerstone of Obama’s efforts to expand opportunity is the new “Power Africa” initiative unveiled ahead of his speech.

The venture is supported by $7 billion in U.S. investment and $9 billion from the private sector, and will seek to bring electricity to at least 20 million new households and commercial entities in an initial set of six countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania.

The White House did not set a specific deadline for achieving that goal, but Obama advisers said it could happen within a decade.

However, the first round of contributions still fall well short of the $300 billion the International Energy Agency says would be required to achieve universal electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030.

Personal remarks

Obama opened his speech with deeply personal remarks about Mandela, tracing the anti-apartheid icon’s influence on his own political activism to his young daughters. He said that standing in Mandela’s cell alongside Malia and Sasha made the experience all the more poignant, reflecting on the distinction he shares with Mandela in being his country’s first black president.

“Seeing them stand within the walls that once surrounded Nelson Mandela, I knew this was an experience they would never forget,” he said. “I knew they now appreciated a little bit more that Madiba and other had made for freedom,” Obama added, referring to Mandela by his clan name.

Obama arrived in Cape Town Sunday from Johannesburg, where he met privately with members of Mandela’s family and spoke with the former president’s wife.

In keeping with the family’s wishes, Obama did not visit Mandela in the hospital.