Anita Kumar

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA: Not much could overshadow the first extended trip to Africa by the first black president of the United States.

But as Barack Obama traveled through the continent, he faced an avalanche of questions, anecdotes, even prayers not for his own visit — but for beloved South African leader Nelson Mandela.

The deteriorating health of the 94-year-old global icon affectionately known here as Madiba has consumed not just South Africa, where Obama spent Saturday, but much of sub-Saharan Africa.

As a result, much of Obama’s trip was transformed into a tribute to Mandela, who led the anti-apartheid movement that coincidentally inspired the political career of a 19-year-old college student and the future president of the United States.

“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,” Obama said Saturday. “It has been an inspiration to the world — and it continues to be. In so many regions that are divided by conflict, sectarian disputes, religious or ethnic wars, to see what happened in South Africa — the power of principle and people standing up for what’s right I think continues to shine as a beacon.”

Obama and Mandela have only met once — Obama keeps a photo in the White House of their brief visit in 2005 when Obama was a freshman senator — but they share a historical link as the first black president in each of their countries.

“The two of you are also bound by history — as the first black presidents of your respective countries — thus, you both carry the dreams of millions of people in Africa and in the diaspora who were previously oppressed,” South Africa President Jacob Zama said at a news conference with Obama on Saturday.

Obama met privately Saturday with members of Mandela’s family — two daughters and eight grandchildren — at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg and spoke by telephone with Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, who remained by her husband’s side.

Signature speech today

Today, Obama will tour Robben Island, where Mandela was held in a small cell for 18 of his 27 years in prison as a political prisoner under the white leaders who ruled the nation. Obama will later give the signature speech of the trip in which he will highlight the example Mandela set in standing up both to apartheid and in a peaceful transition of power.

“So much of the democratic progress that we see across the continent I think can be tied in some way to the inspiration that Nelson Mandela set,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Obama. “We are definitely going to be paying tribute to Nelson Mandela’s contribution to not just South Africa, but to Africa and the world.”

Obama is on the second stop of a weeklong trip to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania designed to promote trade, build democracies and inspire youth leaders.

It was a trip Africans had long been waiting for but the timing meant that residents were instead busy mentally preparing themselves to mourn the passing of Mandela. Family members, meanwhile, were publicly feuding about his funeral arrangements.

Also Saturday, Obama met with South Africa President Jacob Zuma behind closed doors at the majestic Renaissance neoclassical style presidential complex, Union Buildings. He later answered questions from a diverse crowd of young leaders from several African nations in person and on video at a town hall meeting at the University of Johannesburg-Soweto.

At both events, Obama began his remarks by talking about Mandela.