Obama’s political rise has drawn inevitable comparisons to Mandela’s. Both are Nobel Peace Prize winners and the first black men elected to lead their countries.
However, the two men met in person only once, a hastily arranged meeting in a Washington hotel room in 2005 when Obama was a U.S. senator. A photo of the meeting hangs in Obama’s personal office at the White House, showing a smiling Mandela sitting on a chair, his legs outstretched, as the young senator reaches down to shake his hand. A copy of the photo also hung in Mandela’s office in Johannesburg.
The two presidents did speak occasionally on the phone, including after the 2008 election, when Mandela called Obama to congratulate him on his victory. The U.S. president called Mandela in 2010 after the South African leader’s 13-year-old great-granddaughter was killed in a car accident. Obama also wrote the introduction to Mandela’s memoir, “Conversations With Myself.”
Mandela had already shaped Obama’s political beliefs well before their first encounter. As a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, Obama joined protests against the school’s investments during South Africa’s apartheid era. In 1981, Obama focused his first public political speech on the topic.
“It’s happening an ocean away,” Obama said, according to a retelling of the story in his memoir “Dreams From My Father.” ”But it’s a struggle that touches each and every one of us. Whether we know it or not. Whether we want it or not.”