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Obama in South Africa: Mandela's struggle an 'inspiration to the world'

Jason Reed / Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) participates in a bilateral meeting with South Africa's President Jacob Zuma at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, June 29, 2013. Obama paid tribute to anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela as he flew to South Africa on Friday but played down expectations of a meeting with the ailing black leader during an Africa tour promoting democracy and food security.

PRETORIA, South Africa – In the second stop on his tour of three African countries, President Barack Obama met with South African President Jacob Zuma on the grounds of the historic Union Buildings on Saturday. The two held a press conference in an ornate and intimate room that lasted over an hour. It included topics ranging from international trade to restructuring the United Nations to immigration and of course, the health of former President Nelson Mandela.

Zuma said of Mandela’s health that his condition hadn’t changed but that the country hopes that he will be out of the hospital soon. Earlier, the White House announced that while the president and First Lady will meet with members of the Mandela family today but they will not be visiting the ailing former leader. But Obama took a moment to honor Mandela’s legacy, “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. It has been an inspiration to the world.”

The president visited with members of Mandela’s family unaccompanied by the First Lady on Saturday.

President Obama was also questioned on how he was prioritizing the myriad of international and domestic issues and problems he’s currently facing.

In his first on camera comments about immigration legislation since the Senate passed a bill this week, the president said he was “pleased” the bill was passed and encouraged the House of Representatives to act before the August congressional recess. “I called both Speaker Boehner and Leader Pelosi and encouraged them to find a path to get this done,” he said.

The president put Afghanistan at the top of his international priorities list. “Managing that transition properly so that by the end of 2014 our troops are out and we’ve got a stable situation inside Afghanistan I think is going to require continued focus and attention,” Obama said.

Another issue bubbling up: the increasingly violent protests in Egypt between those opposed to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s rule and his supporters. 

President Obama said his first concern is with the safety of American embassies and consulates. The State Department has already confirmed that a 21-year-old American student has died in the unrest there and the US Embassy confirms that some embassy employees have started leaving the country today. But the president had to tiptoe around the issue, “I’d like to see the opposition and Morsi engaged in a more constructive conversation.” And Obama admitted that democracy is a challenge for a country that has almost no tradition of it in the region.

But the president used his opening remarks to try to focus attention on the trade and investment relationship between the U.S. and South Africa. “All too often attention is only paid to Africa during a crisis…Six of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. We have a lot more work to do and I think we can do it better together.”

Obama said that on Saturday he would introduce an international youth initiative, saying, “This afternoon I will be in Soweto to announce a major expansion of our initiatives to invest in young Africans who will shape this country and this continent for decades to come.” The Young African Leadership program will now include a “Washington Fellowship.” The White House says it “will bring 500 young leaders to U.S. universities and colleges each year for academic and leadership training, beginning in 2014, with the goal of increasing to 1000 participants per year within five years.” 

On Sunday, the president plans to travel to Cape Town where he will visit the historic Robben Island with his family and he will head to Tanzania on Monday.

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