READ: Obama’s first Protest

Barack Obama in Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island

“I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life,” Obama said. “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. I studied his words and his writings.”

By Paul Lewis - The Guardian

The young black university student who walked up to the microphone at an anti-apartheid rally in 1980 was, by his own admission, cynical about the virtues of political activism.

Barack Obama had spent his early years of college submerged in books by African American writers by the likes of James Baldwin, W E B Du Bois and Malcolm X, wrestling with his own mixed racial identity.

But it was the campaign for equality thousands of miles away in South Africa that first spurred Obama, then aged 19, into action: taking part in a divestment rally in his sophomore year at Occidental College in Los Angeles, one of hundreds of similar campaigns sweeping campuses across America.

“There’s a struggle going on,” Obama told fellow students in his first political speech. “It is happening an ocean away, but it is a struggle that touches each and every one of us.”

That sentiment – that the anti-apartheid movement affected the lives of people across the world – was repeated by Obama at the White House on Thursday, less than an hour after the was told that Nelson Mandela, the leader of South Africa’s justice movement, had died.

“I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life,” Obama said. “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. I studied his words and his writings.”

The thread that binds Mandela, Africa’s most revered statesman, with Obama, America’s first black president, extends beyond that single protest. The men may have had fewer personal encounters than might have been expected, but Mandela's inspiring political story left a deep impression on the US president during his formative years.

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Barack Obama was born in 1961, the year before Mandela began his nearly three-decade prison sentence. Obama was studying at Harvard Law School when Mandela was released from prison in 1990. Soon after, Obama began work on his memoir, Dreams of My Father, which explores his relationship with his Kenyan-born father, and touches briefly on the anti-apartheid rally he took part in at Occidental College.

At the time, Obama was a reluctant protester, embarrassed by what he saw as the naivety of activism. His remembers feeling that the protests he was taking part in were futile. As he demonstrated outside, he recalled seeing the university trustees entering the administration buildings: "Old white men chuckling to themselves," he said. READ MORE

(Photo credit: Barack Obama in Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island. Photograph: Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images)