Obama says South Africans' freedom fight inspired political career
On a political and sentimental tour of the continent of his father, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama paid tribute Wednesday to South Africans' fight for freedom, saying they taught lessons to the world and helped inspire his own political career.
With hand shakes, hugs and his congenial grin, Obama, a Democrat from Illinois who is the U.S. Senate's only black member, toured Soweto, the township where white rulers tried to confine by night the blacks who worked in their homes, offices and mines by day.
At the Hector Pieterson Museum, built on the site where peaceful child protesters were gunned down by police 30 years ago in an attack that awakened the world to the brutality of the apartheid regime, Obama said he became involved in politics to fight for divestment of U.S. interests in South Africa.
"If it wasn't for some of the activities that happened here, I might not be involved in politics and might not be doing what I am doing in the United States," he said.
Obama, who was 15 at the time of the 1976 Soweto Uprising that gave renewed impetus to a demoralized fight for black rule, said the event also highlighted the importance of young people in politics.
At the U.S.-funded Rosa Parks Memorial Library, set in a community center behind St. Paul's Anglican Church, Obama leaned over desks to chat with young and older users.
Obama promised an introduction to film producer Spike Lee to Themba Nkabinde, a 37-year-old documentary maker sponsored by the U.S. Ford Foundation who told him he had just won a scholarship to study at New York University. Obama told him it was the world's finest film school, and Lee's alma mater.
In the upstairs gallery, so packed some people sat on the floor, Obama got down to speak face-to-face with some teenagers.
Afterward, one asked "Who is he?" When told he was the only black U.S. senator, that his father was an African, and that there was talk he might one day be the first black president of the United States, she squealed with excitement, "Ooooh, let's go and touch him!"
Some American tourists at the Hector Pieterson Museum did recognize Obama and rushed to introduce themselves. Jim Lockerbie presented a museum pamphlet for a signature, saying he had taught world history for 33 years at Newport High School in Seattle and was delighted by the changes since he last visited South Africa in 1971.
"What a difference! When I was in Cape Town, this guy pointed at Robben Island and said, 'That's where we keep the trouble makers."'
Among them was Nelson Mandela, whose release after 27 years' incarceration began the process of negotiation that led to democratic elections in 1991.
Obama began the Africa tour that will take him to his father's village in Kenya at Robben Island on Sunday, on a trip that he hopes will bring new light to Africa's importance on the world stage, especially to the war on terrorism and in developmental aid.
A six-nation itinerary was cut Wednesday because of a request from the U.S. Embassy in Congo that he cancel a planned visit there because of postelections fighting that has pitted soldiers supporting rival presidential candidates in Kinshasa, the capital.
Aides said the senator would scrap visits to Congo and Rwanda and travel directly Thursday to Kenya, then on to Djibouti and Chad.
In South Africa, Obama has met with black businessmen, AIDS victims and U.S. Embassy officials, among others. He has not managed to meet with former President Mandela, nor his successor, President Thabo Mbeki. His visit coincided with one by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Motakki.
Wednesday's most moving moment came at the Hector Pieterson Museum, when Obama put his arm comfortingly around Antoinette Sithole, sister of the slain Hector, as she explained the background to the iconic picture they stood before -- of her, running with mouth open in a scream, alongside a friend carrying the body of her 13-year-old brother.
"All of us drew inspiration from what happened here, all of us wept when we saw some of the deaths, including Hector's," Obama said.