Obama Visits Capetown

The president is touring Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent years in prison before the fall of apartheid. Weekend Edition Sunday host Linda Wertheimer talks with NPR's Ari Shapiro about the president's day.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Rachel Martin is away. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

President Obama is in Cape Town, South Africa this morning. Later today, he'll give the keynote speech of his weeklong trip across the African continent. NPR's Ari Shapiro is traveling with the president. He joins us with a preview.

Good morning, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So first, give us some context. The president is speaking at the University of Cape Town. Is that an important setting?

SHAPIRO: Absolutely, political junkies may recognize that setting as the place where Robert F. Kennedy gave his famous "Ripples of Hope Speech" in 1966. In that speech, Kennedy said: Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.

And that theme is going to be part of President Obama's speech today. He's going to reflect on how far South Africa and the world have come since Kennedy delivered those remarks half a century ago, and how much work there still is to do. I mean, think about in 1966 Nelson Mandela was an anti-apartheid activist who had just been imprisoned. He would stay imprisoned for 27 years.

And, of course, now Mandela is considered an icon, a beloved hero. And at age 94, he is currently in the hospital in critical condition.

WERTHEIMER: President Obama has talked about Nelson Mandela every single day of his trip. You know, Ari, I thought it was almost as if he is trying to say everything that he might have said to Mandela if he'd been able to.

SHAPIRO: I think that's true, Linda. And I think that he's also been trying to say some of the things that we might expect them to say in an eventual eulogy. And Mandela is going to be a huge part of this speech today. White House aides, who preview the speech for us, say the frame of it will be Mandela's example and his legacy. And that that was the plan even before Mandela took ill.

President Obama is going to say that Mandela's life, as White House spokesman Ben Rhodes put it, is the ultimate testament to how change can happen within countries and beyond countries' borders.

And this address also comes just a few hours after President Obama and his family visit Robben Island, the prison were Mandela spent 18 of his years behind bars. Today, it's a World Heritage Site and museum with tours given by people who were once themselves Robben Island prisoners, including the tour guide for the Obama family today.

WERTHEIMER: What about major new initiatives in Africa or programs in the works? Will the president have any big announcements that come out of this trip, or perhaps that he might make today?

SHAPIRO: Yes, the biggest one is the plan called Power Africa which aims to double access to electricity on the continent. The White House says two-thirds of people in sub-Saharan Africa right now get by without power. So the president's strategy uses investment from private companies, as well as government programs. And then, the president also has a public health initiative. He has said he wants to end child and maternal deaths from preventable disease.

And he's going to talk about food security in his speech, as well. The White House has a program to help farmers get their products to market by giving them access to new technologies.

WERTHEIMER: How does that compare, do you think, to previous administrations and their approaches to Africa?

SHAPIRO: Well, the first thing you have to note is that President Obama really paid almost no attention to Africa his first four and half years in office. But now that he is investing in the continent, we're seeing a real shift from previous administrations. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had significant African aid initiatives. President Obama is trying to move away from that sort of handouts model of giving food and medicines to the continent.

Instead, he's talking a lot about public/private partnerships, trade relationships and investments that he says will help people in the U.S. and in Africa. That's true of all the new initiatives that the president is talking about this week. And it's even true of old initiatives like PEPFAR, the president's emergency program for AIDS relief which started under the Bush administration.

President Obama says it saved millions of lives. But now he's trying to shift to establish more long-term health infrastructure, rather than the emergency measures to hand out medicines.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Ari Shapiro is traveling with President Obama. Ari, thank you.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome. Good to talk to you.

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