JOHANNESBURG -- President Barack Obama arrived today in South Africa for a three-day visit to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela's legacy as the world monitors the failing health of the 94-year-old anti-apartheid leader.
The U.S. president traveled from Senegal, where he kicked off a mission to promote trade and investment across the African continent by underscoring the importance of democratic values to economic growth.
While Mr. Mandela's condition has weighed on the entire trip, it will be most felt in the South African icon's home country, which Mr. Obama plans to draw on as a symbol of what's possible.
"If we focus on what Africa as a continent can do together and what these countries can do when they're unified, as opposed to when they're divided by tribe or race or religion, then Africa's rise will continue," Mr. Obama told reporters traveling to South Africa aboard Air Force One. "That's one of the essential lessons of what Nelson Mandela accomplished not just as president, but in the struggle to overcome apartheid and his years in prison."
Mr. Obama, who had just one face-to-face meeting with Mr. Mandela, in 2005, said he will defer to the family on a potential visit with the ailing leader, who lies in a Pretoria hospital after weeks of treatment for a lung infection. Aides said a meeting is possible with members of the Mandela family, although they have had little contact.
"I don't need a photo-op," Mr. Obama said. "But I think the main message we'll want to deliver ... is simply a profound gratitude for his leadership all these years, and that the thoughts and prayers of the American people are with him and his family and his country."
Mr. Obama is forging ahead with the trip, even with the visit's potentially uncomfortable -- albeit profound -- timing. Given the delicacy of the situation, Mr. Obama will have to walk a "diplomatic tightrope" with his events in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"The U.S.-South Africa relationship is prickly at the best of times," Mr. Downie said.
Traveling with his family, Mr. Obama will visit landmarks and meet with representatives of Mr. Mandela's life and struggles. He was to hold a news conference today with South Africa's President Jacob Zuma in Pretoria and later make remarks and answer questions from young Africans at the University of Johannesburg Soweto.
On Sunday, Mr. Obama goes to Cape Town for a scheduled visit to Robben Island, where Mr. Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison for opposing white-minority rule. From there, Mr. Obama has a planned community center visit that focuses on health and HIV/AIDS prevention with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who greeted Mr. Mandela the day he was released from prison in 1990.
The visit by a sitting U.S. president, notably its first black president, is important for the South African leader, said University of Witwatersrand politics professor Daryl Glaser. The country has the continent's largest economy and has been "the post-apartheid rainbow nation darling of the world" since 1994, when Mr. Mandela was elected president.
"It wanted to maintain good relations for the West, for reasons of investment, tourism," Mr. Glaser said. Of the 49 nations of sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa is the top market for U.S. goods, receiving roughly one-third of U.S. exports to the region. South Africa is 36th largest goods trading partner for the United States.
Mr. Obama is using stops in three African democracies -- Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania -- to highlight progress being made on the continent and point to economic opportunities that can come as a result.
"Those countries where businesses can feel confident that there will be peaceful transitions of power, that corruption is prosecuted, where there's rule of law, where there's protection of private property, where the government is practical and not wildly ideological -- that is what will attract American businesses," Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Obama said he'll convey that message over the next several days as he prays for Mr. Mandela and his family. "The message will be consistent because it draws on the lessons of Nelson Mandela's own life," he said.