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President Obama landed in South Africa today, the second stop on a three-country tour. He arrives as Nelson Mandela, now 94 years old, remains in a hospital in Pretoria. Our East Africa correspondent, Gregory Warner, traveled to Pretoria to gauge what kind of welcome the U.S. president might expect.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking foreign language)
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Several hundred protesters gathered today outside the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria. Among the protesters are many refugees from various African countries, all who feel in their own ways that President Obama has been too tolerant of the strongmen ruling their home countries. What's this about?
PROTE BASEKE OO KOOLAN WOONDOO: This one is Angola.
WOONDOO: But that side is Congolese people.
WARNER: What's your name?
WOONDOO: My name is Prote Baseke oo Koolan Woondoo(ph). Yes.
WARNER: Prote Baseke is Congolese. He points out other country groups: the Zimbabweans, the Ivorians, the Ethiopians, with their green-and-gold soccer jerseys. But even here among the protesters, there's a mixed message. Barack Obama bears the weight of being a powerful symbol of hope for ordinary Africans, one who many here admit they're excited to welcome, even if they disapprove of his decisions as president. In the middle of the crowd, I get into a brief linguistic debate with a South African construction worker named Eddie Moringa(ph).
EDDIE MORINGA: We are protesting against President Obama, not Obama, President Obama.
WARNER: So you like the man, but you don't like the politics.
MORINGA: We don't like the power.
WARNER: But you're proud that Barack Obama is the president.
MORINGA: No, we are proud...
MORINGA: ...because he's representing us in America.
WARNER: But as much of a symbol as Barack Obama is for Africans and South Africans, he's arriving here at a time when a greater icon of leadership, called here by his tribal name Madiba, is spending his 20th day on a hospital bed.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) We love you, Madiba.
WARNER: Outside the Medi Park Heart Hospital in Pretoria, the scene is partly a media stakeout - there are dozens and dozens of news cameras - but partly a shrine. The gates are plastered with get well messages written on posters and T-shirts and in children's handprints. Joy Mogale(ph) is a local pastor here with her husband. She tells me she wishes she brought her kids. Because they don't know Mandela like you do.
JOY MOGALE: They don't know him. We knew him when he came out of prison. I remember I was in middle in Soweto. I come from Soweto. You - from where I was, I could hear noise from the train, and people were chanting, you know, songs of freedom, and all we could do is just run there just to be part of it. So it feels like that, too, yeah.
WARNER: It feels like that now.
MOGALE: It does, it does.
WARNER: Joy offers a perspective on this moment of history that I hadn't quite encountered before. Far from intruding on a national moment of grief and anxiety, she says President Obama's visit is coming at a rare moment of national unity in South Africa, where people across the nation feel connected by the bond of their collective memories of a great man.
Though with all these people with camera phones trying to document their piece of the singular moment and all these reporters like me running around, conversations quickly get meta. Even as I'm talking to Joy, she's videotaping me. So I just have to say, this is an experience I've not had yet where I'm holding a microphone in your face, and you're pointing an iPhone, which is actually covered with quite glittery - like - what is that actually?
MOGALE: It's just a cover...
MOGALE: I got it from one of the markets in China, Guangzhou.
WARNER: OK. So you just came back from China.
MOGALE: Yes, this morning.
WARNER: China, it might be mentioned, has notched off presidential visits to 30 African countries in the past five years. After Tuesday, President Obama will have visited four. So Joy Mogale says at this moment when South Africans are looking at their past, they're also looking forward toward their economic future. Africa is one of the fastest-growing regions of the world. On this visit, they expect President Obama to start treating them that way. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Pretoria.
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