Mr. Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, daughters Malia and Sasha, and the Obamas’ niece Leslie Robinson arrived on Robben Island after a five-minute helicopter flight from Capetown on Marine One. They were accompanied by a press helicopter and a contingent of Secret Service agents.
They got a tour of the prison, where Mr. Mandela spent 27 years as a political prisoner, from 83-year-old former inmate Ahmed Kathrada. They also saw the small cell that once was occupied by Mr. Mandela, the anti-apartheid icon.
The president and first lady paused at the prison’s log book, and Mr. Obama wrote the following entry:
“On behalf of our family we’re deeply humbled to stand where men of such courage faced down injustice and refused to yield. The world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island, who remind us that no shackles or cells can match the strength of the human spirit. Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, 30 June 2013.”
Mr. Mandela, 94, is in critical condition with a lung infection in a South African hospital. Mr. Obama didn’t visit the former South African president on this trip, saying he didn’t want to intrude on the family’s crisis.
At a quarry where prisoners labored, Mr. Obama told his daughters about the history of the nonviolence movement in South Africa.
“One thing you guys might not be aware of us that the idea of political nonviolence first took root here in South Africa because Mahatma Gandhi was a lawyer here in South Africa,” he told the girls. “Here is where he did his first political [activism]. When he went back to India, the principles ultimately led to Indian independence, and what Gandhi did inspired Martin Luther King.”