Then-Sen. Barack Obama visits Nelson Mandela's jail cell on Robben Island in 2006. | AFP/Getty Images
Updated: January 7, 2014 6:46AM
WASHINGTON — On a breezy early August morning in 2006, then Sen. Barack Obama boarded a ferry off the Cape Town waterfront, and en route to Robben Island sat next to a man imprisoned with Nelson Mandela. Obama listened intently as Ahmed Kathrada told the story of their harsh life on the prison island.
Mandela, the former South African president, spent 18 of his 27 years in prison on Robben Island, and the brutal conditions he faced shaped, but remarkably did not embitter, the anti-apartheid fighter who died Thursday at the age of 95.
Obama was on the first leg of a five-nation African trip, which I covered. The Robben Island tour seemed like a personal pilgrimage for Obama, who was keenly aware of the symbolism. The son of a Kenyan returning to Africa as a U.S. senator — the only African American in the Senate at the time — was visiting the maximum-security prison that held Mandela but could not contain him.
With Kathrada as a “Robbeneiland” guide, Obama, as a VIP, was allowed to enter Mandela’s small cell. He looked all around and peered through the bars on the small window as photographers and videographers outside captured the iconic image. Afterward, Obama told us, “It humbles you.”
From the prison cell we continued the tour. We saw the menus for prisoners where the apartheid laws dictated larger portions for “Coloureds and Asiaties” than “Bantus.” At a stop in the limestone quarry — where Mandela crushed stones for years — Obama bent over to pick up a rock.
Obama would revisit that cell a few years later — on another trip to South Africa, last June — this time as President of the United States.
Obama met Mandela only once. It was in May 2005, in Washington.
Obama was his in first months as an Illinois senator. He met briefly with Mandela in his hotel room in a hurriedly arranged get-together for a senator already rising like a rocket.
David Katz was staffing Obama that day. A University of Chicago Lab School alum, back in 2005 Katz often functioned as a personal assistant to Obama — albeit one who loved to take photos and often rolled with his camera.
Katz’s shot of that historic meeting was of Obama in silhouette, looking down at Mandela, sitting in a stuffed chair, legs stretched out over an ottoman, with a cane by his side.
I would see Katz’s picture when I was in Obama’s Hart Senate Building office. It hung on the wall nearest his desk.
“I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life,” Obama said Thursday, coming to the White House briefing room to make a brief statement after South African President Jacob Zuma announced Mandela’s death. Just a few weeks ago, on Nov. 7, Obama welcomed Mandela daughters Zindzi and Zenani to the White House for a screening of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
“My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid,” Obama said.
“I studied his words and his writings. The day that he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears. And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set, and so long as I live I will do what I can to learn from him.”
In June 2011, Mandela met with first lady Michelle Obama, daughters Malia and Sasha, a niece and nephew, and the first lady’s mother, Marian Robinson, when they visited South Africa.
As for that picture of Obama and Mandela — it’s hanging near the Oval Office — and upstairs in the Obama residence.