07/02/2013 12:38 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

Mandela, Obama, and the Opportunities in Africa

The world waits for updates for the health of Nelson Mandela. The man who destroyed apartheid has been a shining beacon and example of what words like decency or integrity should mean to us. Waiting for medical reports only reminds us that greatness is achieved only by by those willing to dedicate themselves completely to higher goals and are willing to wait as long as it takes to see those goals arrive.

President Obama arrived in South Africa with a massive entourage. While he took steps to respect the privacy of Mandela's family and avoided contributing to the media circus that surrounds them in this difficult time, it remains to be seen what the outcome of his trip might be. What will happen during a trip that involves several countries in South Africa and where a joint appearance with former President Bush is even on the agenda? Will Obama's team advise him that American foreign policy did little to oppose and bring down apartheid? Will the people of African nations get a chance to express their worries about the spread of American military bases or Chinese trade deals?

Mandela was a prisoner of conscience on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town for 18 years and spent 27 years behind bars for refusing to betray his vision of what South Africa might be. It was not only Mandela who was on the front lines during the struggle for justice in South Africa. Thousands of members of the African National Congress (Mandela's then-banned political party) were held without charge. Many were victims of torture throughout South Africa's vicious jails. Many, like Steve Biko, were discarded into graves as if they were trash. The majority of South Africa's population was ruled by fear more than law.

The American presidency has not traditionally paid much attention to Africa's problems and supporting solutions that work for Africans. Former President Bush gets some credit for changing that attitude, but the easy part is taking a stand. The hard part is in maintaining the follow-up and follow-through. For 27 years of prison, Nelson Mandela did not waver. After his release, his even keel averted a much greater bloodbath for South Africa. A final dedication to his ideals was to voluntarily withdraw from public life.

I saw in Lesotho as Peace Corps director how many lived and died for Mandela and the African National Congress, all of whom were devoted and emotional supporters of Mandela. These people were nonviolent organizers. Yes, the ANC had a military wing but it was summarily ended with the end of his imprisonment and the apartheid regime. People in Lesotho were not engorged with an aspiration to be paramilitaries as much as for social justice and human rights with the understanding that the inspiration offered by Nelson Mandela from his island to people like Phyllis Naidoo, Chris Hani, Kalechi Sello, Desmond Tutu, and the Bishop of Lesotho. They managed to aspire to lift the whole small nation into a source of ANC support.

This visit represents an opportunity to learn from Mandela's life and to chart a better course for the future of the American-African relationship and for a reminder of America to ask what sort of legacy it intends. In truth, President Obama currently has more in common with Jacob Zuma than Nelson Mandela. Dishonesty and lack of follow-through hangs on Zuma like a daily suit. With regard to HIV issues in Africa, Obama isn't as bad as Thabo Mbeki was but he's behind Bush himself. Military adventurism and failure to deliver on human rights issues hang on President Obama the same. The clarity of purpose and the simplexes of direction are not in these leaders as they are in Mandela.

Mandela negotiated his way into the presidency. He, like our president, was a lawyer. His team, led by Bram Fisher and young brilliant lawyers like Denis Kuny and Arthur Chaskalson did crucial work and raised critical issues with a consideration of politics, but not the infinite delay of excuses that are implied by saying that such-and-such is "not realistic right now" that we've seen from the Obama administration. Mandela closed Robben Island as a jail. Our president must do the same with Guantanamo and without delay. Obama continues to trail considerably behind his predecessor in assistance for Africa's fight against HIV.

My hope is the president's visit will be appreciated not as merely a president but as a student given a chance to learn, to absorb and come home to a devotion back towards human rights and to live in a house of integrity for the remainder of his presidency and far beyond. Africans deserve more real aid and less exported strife from their relationship to the United States. United States citizens deserve a government that respects human rights and gives respect.

Taking in the full history of Africa's potential strengths and inspirations from the visit, from people like Nelson Mandela and his peers, Obama should reflect and help lead both America and Africa to a newer better partnership. Mandela never worried about his legacy. He simply fought for what is right and did what was just in the world. Will the President absorb this wisdom? Will the world?