US President Barack Obama yesterday was to announce a new initiative to double access to electric power in sub-Saharan Africa, part of his effort to build on the legacy of equality and opportunity forged by his personal hero, former South African president Nelson Mandela.
Obama, who flew from Johannesburg to Cape Town yesterday, was to pay tribute to the ailing 94-year-old Mandela throughout the day.
The US president and his family visited Robben Island, where the anti-apartheid leader spent 18 years confined to a tiny cell, and was then to deliver a speech at the University of Cape Town that will be infused with memories of Mandela.
During that address, Obama was to unveil the “Power Africa” initiative, which includes an initial US$7 billion investment from the US over the next five years.
Private companies, including General Electric and Symbion Power, are making an additional US$9 billion in commitments with the goal of providing power to millions of Africans crippled by a lack of electricity.
Gayle Smith, Obama’s senior director for development and democracy, said more than two-thirds of people living in sub-Saharan African do not have electricity, including 85 percent of those living in rural areas.
“If you want lights so kids can study at night or you can maintain vaccines in a cold chain, you don’t have that, so going the extra mile to reach people is more difficult,” Smith said.
Obama will also highlight US efforts to bolster access to food and health programs on the continent. His advisers said the president sees reducing the poverty and illness that plague many parts of Africa as an extension of Mandela’s example of how change can happen within countries.
The former South African president has been hospitalized in critical condition for three weeks.
Obama met on Saturday with members of Mandela’s family, but did not visit the anti-apartheid icon in the hospital, a decision the White House said was in keeping with his family’s wishes.
Obama’s week-long trip, which opened in Senegal and closes later this week in Tanzania, marks his most significant trip to the continent since taking office. His scant personal engagement has come as a disappointment to some in the region, who had high hopes for a man whose father was from Kenya.
Obama visited Robben Island before, as a US senator. However, since being elected as the first black US president, Obama has drawn inevitable comparisons to Mandela, making yesterday’s visit particularly poignant.
The president said he was also eager to bring his family with him to the prison to teach them about Mandela’s role in overcoming white racist rule, first as an activist and later as a president who forged a unity government with his former captors.
He told reporters on Saturday he to “help them to understand not only how those lessons apply to their own lives, but also to their responsibilities in the future as citizens of the world, that’s a great privilege and a great honor.”
US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Mandela’s vision was always going to feature prominently in the speech.
However, the former South African leader’s deteriorating health “certainly puts a finer point on just how much we cannot take for granted what Nelson Mandela did,” he said.
Harkening back to a prominent theme from his 2009 speech in Ghana — his only other trip to Africa as president — Obama will emphasize that Africans must take much of the responsibility for finishing the work started by Mandela and his contemporaries.
“The progress that Africa has made opens new doors, but frankly, it’s up to the leaders in Africa and particularly young people to make sure that they’re walking through those doors of opportunity,” Rhodes said.
Obama was to speak at the University of Cape Town nearly 50 years after then-US senator Robert Kennedy delivered his famous “Ripple of Hope” speech from the school.