Pretoria, South Africa: State Dinners are typically all-out festive affairs. But on Saturday evening, President Jacob Zuma's two-hour fete for President Obama began with a moment of silence honoring the critically ill Nelson Mandela. Standing at the Head Table, the two Presidents, with First Lady Michelle Obama and First Lady Thobeka Madiba-Zuma, led the guests in bowing their heads to pay tribute to the 94-year-old statesman, in a moment that reflected prayers pouring in from around the globe.
"Tonight," said President Obama during his toast, "we must admit, our minds and our hearts are not fully here because a piece of us, a piece of our heart is with a man and a family who is not far away from here."
Since June 8th, Mr. Mandela, one of President Obama's personal heroes, has been fighting for his life in a hospital just miles from the dinner. But he was very much present in the banquet hall of the Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House, located on the grounds of the government complex where he was inaugurated in 1994. President Obama spent his first full day in South Africa describing Mandela's impact on his own life, and he continued his praise at the dinner.
Mandela made the unimaginable seem possible, he said, "including the improbable idea that a son of an African man might even become an American President."
Zuma, 71, took office in May of 2009. Like Mandela, he was imprisoned on Robben Island for opposing the racist government. He agreed that his 200 guests, including diplomats and government officials, shared President Obama's feelings. Mandela, he said, "is also a personal hero to all of us here tonight."
"As we celebrate our friendship, we are also keeping Madiba in our thoughts," he said, calling the elder statesman by the clan name used by many South Africans.
The banquet came on the heels of the President's visit to Senegal, and marked the mid-way point in a week-long trip to the African continent, his first extended period of engagement since taking office. He was met with crowds cheering their adulation--as well as some protests--outside public events.
But President Obama's hoped-for historic meeting with the only man on earth who shares the dual distinction of being the first black president of his country as well as a Nobel laureate was impossible due to Mandela's illness. Instead, earlier on Saturday President Obama visited the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg and met privately with ten members of the family, including two daughters. Joined by Mrs. Obama, the President also spoke by phone with Mrs. Graça Machel, who has been standing vigil as her husband battles a lung infection.
Clad in a dark suit with a bright blue tie, the President arrived for the dinner at 7:55 PM, flying from Johannesburg aboard Marine One with his entourage. Mrs. Obama wore a silk one-shouldered sunset-hued cocktail dress designed by Naeem Khan, with bright lines of oranges, reds and yellows in the pleated, below-the-knee skirt blurred together in an ombre effect. She embellished the look with a dramatic gold statement necklace.
The two First Couples sat at a long rectangular Head Table on a raised dais, facing the guests gathered at round tables for ten in the banquet hall, which has a soaring, beamed ceiling atop white-washed walls. Tiny flags for both nations and floral arrangements of red, pink and white blooms decorated the white-clothed tables surrounded by chairs slip-covered in white. The tables were arranged on both sides of a red carpet running through the center of the room. The South African Navy band played musical interludes.
There was a light moment as President Zuma rose to make his remarks, only to discover that President Obama's notes had been placed on the podium, rather than his own. An awkward silence followed as aides scrambled to find the right transcript, and eventually, the band began to play to kill some time. President Obama later jokingly thanked Zuma’s aides "for making my staff feel much better."
"This is not the first time that a President has come to the podium without notes that were supposed to be there," President Obama quipped, to laughter. "They are greatly relieved that that does not only happen to them."
As he made his toast, Zuma hailed the relationship between the US and South Africa, noting the President's personal link as the son of a Kenyan father.
"You are no stranger to Africa, Mr. President. You are a son of the African Continent," Zuma said. "Your African tour is actually a homecoming."
Zuma spoke emotionally about Mandela, saying that he and other great leaders "taught us that freedom comes at a price." And now President Obama's visit is a turning point in relations between the two countries, he said, adding that both have a duty to take this a step further for mutual benefit: Zuma invited US public entities and private companies to partner with South Africa.
He also thanked the US for its assistance and partnership through the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and said President Obama had reminded South Africans that investing in their young people is crucial.
On Sunday, President Obama and the First Family will fly to Cape Town to make a pilgrimage to Robben Island to tour the prison where both Mandela and Zuma were incarcerated by the apartheid government; Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of brutal confinement there.
Zuma concluded by saying that President Obama’s trip to the prison complex will be a significant moment, because he is bringing the First Family with him, and then asked the guests to toast to stronger bilateral relations and friendship.
As President Obama took the podium, he said his toast would be short, because not only will he be giving another major speech on Sunday detailing what South Africa means to him, but "I have spoken enough today." He added, to laughter, "I know Michelle hardly agrees." (Above, toasting with Zuma)
President Obama hailed the South African concept of "Ubuntu," which he admitted was tough to translate but described as "the belief that we can only achieve true excellence and our full potential by sharing ourselves with others, by caring for those around us."
Mandela and Zuma both embody that spirit, President Obama said, as he briefly described their incarceration and brutal beatings in prison. But they rose above it, he said, to transform the nation, and "we feel that spirit tonight."
"To President Zuma, and to all of you who participated in that struggle, the world will always remember your sacrifice," President Obama said. "It’s a sacrifice that resonated in the United States in the same way that the U.S. civil rights movement helped to create bonds of solidarity with those in South Africa who were seeking their freedom."
"We feel that spirit in the bonds between our two peoples that I think are unique in human history. I would not be here were it not for those Freedom Fighters, and I certainly would not be here if people weren’t willing to fight for the principles that both our countries hold dear."
And while South Africans were inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, "we drew inspiration from your struggle," President Obama said.
"Your success reminded us that all things were possible, including the improbable idea that a son of an African man might even become an American President."
As he ended his toast remarks, President Obama recited the full text of Invictus, a poem he said Mandela "turned to so often himself, in that cell" while incarcerated, as well as read to his fellow prisoners "in their darkest moments, to give them strength."
Written in 1857 by British poet William Ernest Henley, Invictus includes the famous lines "My head is bloody, but unbowed," and ends with "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."
The guests rose to their feet as President Obama ended by raising a wine glass filled with water, proposing his toast to Mandela and Zuma:
"To a man who has always been a master of his fate who taught us that we could be the master of ours, to a proud nation, and South Africa’s unconquerable soul, and to President Zuma and Madam Zuma for their outstanding leadership in carrying on the great traditions of the South African struggle. Pula!"
On the guest list...
Guests from the US delegation included Senior Advisors Valerie Jarrett and Dan Pfeiffer; Press Secretary Jay Carney; Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes; Deputy Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco; newly minted US Trade Representative Mike Froman and Grant Harris, Senior Director for Africa for the National Security Council. (Above, the President with Mrs. Madiba-Zuma)
Notable South African guests included Deputy President of the Republic Kgalema Motlanthe; Speaker of the National Assembly Max Sisulu; the Chief Justice of the Republic, Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng; Deputy President of the African National Congress Cyril Ramaphosa; and African Union Commission Chairman Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. (Above, a long view of the banquet hall)
In Senegal, the President and Mrs. Obama were also feted with a State Dinner hosted by President Macky Sall. There will be a third State Dinner in Tanzania, the final stop on the trip.
*The transcript of the Presidents' toast remarks.
The final part of the trip...
The First Family will fly to Cape Town on Sunday, and events there will include the visit to Robben Island, as well as President Obama delivering a speech at the University of Cape Town. On Monday morning, the First Family travels to Tanzania for the final leg of the trip.
Though Tanzania shares a border with Kenya, the President's schedule does not include a visit to his father's homeland. The White House has cited the politically impossible optics of visiting a country where the current president will go on trial go later this year before the International Criminal Court, accused of orchestrating deadly ethnic violence following the 2007 election.
But on Saturday afternoon, speaking during the Young African Leaders Initiative Town Hall to a crowd of more than 650 at the University of Johannesburg-Soweto, the President pledged that he will visit Kenya before he's out of office.
"If in three years and seven months I am not in Kenya, then you can fault me for not following through on my promise," he said, in response to a question posed by a young Kenyan woman speaking via satellite.
CLICK HERE for links to all posts about the President's trip to Africa, his fourth abroad in his second term.
The text of Invictus, by William Ernest Henley:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
*Top photo tweeted by @dougmillsnyt/Doug Mills/New York Times; others by Saul Loeb/AFP/Pool; last by Pete Souza/White House