More than 30 years later, as he traveled through the African continent, Obama recalled the influence Mandela had had on him during that period of his life.

“I think at that time I didn’t necessarily imagine that Nelson Mandela might be released,” Obama said Thursday. But the president said he had read Mandela’s writings and speeches and understood him to be a man who believed in “treating people equally and was willing to sacrifice his life for that belief.”

Following his release from prison, Mandela was elected president in 1994 during South Africa’s first all-races elections. He served just one term, focusing in large part on racial reconciliation in the post-apartheid era, and retreated from public life several years ago.

The most recent images of him depict a frail man apparently approaching the end of his life. While South Africans have long been loath to talk about Mandela’s inevitable death, there is now a growing sense in the country that the time is near. Well-wishers have delivered flowers and messages of support to the Pretoria hospital where he is being treated, and prayer sessions have been held around the country.


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