U.S. President Barack Obama engaged young people from South Africa and three other African nations for more than an hour Saturday, taking questions on issues ranging from economic growth and job opportunity in Africa to countering extremism in a town-hall style meeting that followed talks earlier in the day with President Jacob Zuma.
The condition of former South African leader Nelson Mandela was a key topic, and Obama praised the ailing anti-apartheid icon in emotional terms at both events on Saturday, saying Mandela's personal courage and South Africa's historic transition are a personal inspiration to him and to the world. The president will visit Robben Island in South Africa Sunday, the prison where Mandela spent nearly 20 years for fighting to overturn the country's apartheid regime.
The president appeared at ease and energized for his exchange with the young people in his audience at the University of Johannesburg in Soweto.
Africa is “on the move,” he said, but the continent faces great challenges “that can't be papered over." The president said Africa's young people will lead the way.
"Even as too many Africans still endure tremendous hardship and great injustice, there is, as the song says, a new Africa — more prosperous, more confident — taking its place on the world stage," he said. "And one of the reasons is because of your generation."
Watch the town hall meeting at the University of Johannesburg - Soweto.
Paying tribute to heroes of the anti-apartheid movement including former president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Obama also recalled Hector Pieterson, a boy killed by police gunfire during a protest in 1976.
“During my first visit to South Africa, I was able to go to Hector Pieterson's memorial and pay tribute to an African boy who moved the world," Obama said, adding that he was "humbled by the sacrifices of all who have gone before us, so we can stand here as free men and women.
"I am honored to return to Soweto now as president of the United States of America."
What followed was a wide-ranging question and answer session with young people gathered from Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria on issues ranging from the need for accountable governments and jobs to climate change and threats from extremist groups.
One Nigerian woman asked: “Considering how long the war on terror has been on for, would you say that we are winning the war on terror, seeing as how there are new terrorist groups developing in Africa. One of which is in Africa?"
Obama said groups like Boko Haram are “doing great harm,” taking advantage of weak African governments, but that the United States is helping to build African governments' capacity to respond to extremism.
“We want the African Union and other regional organizations to build up the capacity to send in peacekeepers, to be able to nip terrorist cells that may be forming before they start and gain strength," he said.
Answering a question from Kenya, Obama said Africans are beginning to demand accountability from their governments.
"You are starting to see more and more a norm, a standard, take hold in Africa," he said. "And young people, I think, especially have high expectations about how government should function, and it should function for the public good, not for the benefit of just a few."
Earlier in the day, President Obama and President Jacob Zuma discussed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the political situation in Zimbabwe and South Africa's progress in fighting HIV/AIDS.
Zuma urged further relaxation of U.S. sanctions against Zimbabwe, and Obama said elections there scheduled for next month must be credible.
Obama said the U.S. does not feel threatened by aggressive investment in Africa by China and other countries, but he urged Africans to carefully consider what they are getting from investment partners.
Obama also praised South Africa's role in the African Union and regional mediation efforts, and shared his vision for enhanced U.S. economic engagement and trade with Africa.
On the situation in Egypt, Obama said the U.S. is watching the situation there closely and ensuring its diplomats and facilities are protected. He called for restraint without violence.
Meets with Mandela Family
President Obama did not visit ailing former president Nelson Mandela in his hospital bed, instead meeting privately with Mandela's daughters and grandchildren. He also spoke by telephone with the 94-year-old leader's wife, Graca Machel.
The president, his wife and their daughters fly on Sunday to Cape Town, where he will deliver a major speech expected to frame his goals of increasing investment and empowering the youth of Africa to take hold of their future.