Sweet Column: A humbling visit to Mandela’s cell

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CAPE TOWN, South Africa — It took Nelson Mandela 18 years to travel round trip between the coast of this city and Robben Island, just off the shore. On Sunday, Sen. Barack Obama, after ferry rides of less than 30 minutes each way, saw for himself where the most famous opponent of apartheid was imprisoned.

Just after 7 a.m., Obama walked from the luxurious oceanfront Table Bay Hotel to the launch that would take the Illinois senator and a press entourage in tow to the former prison, now a museum, historic site and nature preserve, this particular morning hosting hundreds of African penguins sunning themselves.

The early sun lights the flattop Table Mountain, giving the formation that is this city’s signature skyline profile a golden glow. Obama, wearing a wireless microphone pinned to his shirt for one of the two documentary teams taping his African visit, settles into a seat on the ferry to get a briefing from Ahmed Kathrada. He was imprisoned with Mandela, later becoming one of his top advisers after Mandela was elected the first president of the newly democratic South Africa in 1994.

Delegation of one

Kathrada leads Obama through the compound in a VIP tour. Obama gets the rare “honor” — it seems a strange word to use for this — of getting to actually stand in the spare cell that was Mandela’s home. He lingers long enough for what becomes the iconic photo shot of the day — the tall Obama peering out what was Mandela’s barred window. Obama said, “It humbles you.”

This visit to Robben Island, an important symbolic beginning of an Africa trip, is the first leg for CODEL OBAMA, Washington jargon for an official taxpayer-paid congressional delegation. Often, these “codels” have more than one lawmaker. In this case, the Obama trip to Africa is a codel of one. He is accompanied by his foreign relations staffer, Mark Lippert; Robert Gibbs, his official government and political spokesman, and two Navy officers who help coordinate the visit.

Also part of CODEL OBAMA is Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, the former director for strategy, policy and plans for the U.S. European Command. EUCOM — that one is a military acronym — oversees all U.S. military activity in Europe, most of Africa and parts of the Mideast.

Developing theme

The Obama day that started with the somber tour of the former prison moved on to a church in Cape Town where, changed to a suit and tie, Obama met with representatives of a variety of faiths in a discussion he would tell me later was one where he listened more than talked. He was greeted by the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Njongongkulu Ndungane, and the Rev. Winston Dickerson, the rector of the small church.

Obama received a benediction from the archbishop in an informal “prayer” session. “Bless him as he serves your people,” the archbishop said.

Finding the role of faith in the civic marketplace is a developing theme for Obama.

Last month, Obama got attention for a speech he made chastening Democrats for, in a sense, letting themselves get co-opted by the religious right. He even opened the door to silent voluntary prayer in school.

The church meeting was closed to the press — we were told the participants wanted it that way. I went off with the other reporters to take a tram ride up Table Mountain in an expedition organized by Gibbs.

Obama’s day ended at a private dinner where the senator talked with AIDS activists at the home of U.S. Consul General Helen LaLime, who is posted in Cape Town.

‘Worthy of a lunatic fringe’

In a country fighting the AIDS epidemic — as is much of Africa — South African President Thabo Mbeki and Health Minister Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang have become the laughingstock of the world when it comes to their views of the disease.

The front page of the Sunday Times, which circulates in South Africa, noted that at the just-concluded AIDS Conference in Toronto, the U.N. special envoy to Africa said the government’s theories about the origin and treatment of AIDS were “worthy of a lunatic fringe.” The South African government came to Toronto to promote AIDS healing with beet root, garlic, lemons and African potato.

Not reluctant to criticize

But the 15 or so AIDS activists — medical researchers, treatment providers and people who work on pediatric, feminist and religious AIDS projects — who dined with Obama already knew their government was on the fringe when it comes to the treatment of AIDS with modern medicine.

I chatted with Obama when he returned to the hotel. The diners were “deeply disturbed” about their government’s views.

“These are very capable people on the ground,” Obama told me. He does not mind coming to a host country and criticizing the government when it comes to AIDS.

Said Obama, diplomacy to him “does not mean I don’t tell the truth as I see it.”

More on AIDS in Africa with CODEL OBAMA today.

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