Barack Obama and Raúl Castro build bridges as world says farewell to Nelson Mandela

Obama’s handshake with Castro may initiate a thaw in their countries’ relations; no detente was in sight for Hollande and Sarkozy, however

Soweto

Clasping hands with the leader of one of America’s oldest geopolitical foes and offering a kiss to another head of government whom his country has just recently antagonised, US President Barack Obama appeared anxious to honour Nelson Mandela’s legacy of forgiveness and reconciliation with more than just words at his memorial service in South Africa on Tuesday.

While having so many world leaders in one place is rare – it is usually seen only at the United Nations General Assembly once a year in New York – it wasn’t clear how many of them were taking the opportunity to do some discreet diplomatic business.

Mr Obama, however, appeared to seize the moment. As he met a parade of fellow world leaders who had similarly flocked to Johannesburg for the occasion, he stirred hopes of a possible breakthrough with Cuba after shaking hands with Raul Castro in full view of the world’s cameras.

As an act of soft diplomacy the Obama-Castro greeting took many by surprise. Such personal interactions between the two countries have been exceedingly rare over the more than five decades of frozen ties between them.

The only prior example was a chance meeting and handshake between former President Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro, Raul’s elder brother, at the United Nations in 2000.

Mr Obama’s brief cheek-peck was for Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian President, who earlier this year shelved a visit to Washington after revelations of NSA eavesdropping on her private communications.

Even Mr Obama’s journey to South Africa offered some example of political rapprochement with both his Republican predecessor, George W Bush, on Air Force One’s passenger manifest and with Hillary Clinton, the Democrat who some say is manoeuvring to replace him.

France’s François Hollande similarly demonstrated his understanding of the symbolism of the moment, walking into the stadium alongside the man he replaced, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The fact that Mr Hollande and ex-President Sarkozy flew to South Africa in different French government planes caused some amusement and puzzlement in the French media on Tuesday.

The Elysée Palace insisted that it was not a question of either man snubbing, or cold-shouldering, the other. The deployment of two 10-seater Falcon aircraft was several times cheaper than using the Presidential Airbus, officials said.

They pointed out that Mr Hollande had to travel with other officials, including the Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, and intended to make a risky visit to the French military intervention force in the violence-ravaged Central African Republic on his way home last night. Mr Sarkozy therefore flew in another plane.

Meanwhile, dispensing with his off-podium niceties, Mr Obama laced his eulogy for Mr Mandela with appeals to those countries with records of political repression which have expressed their declared admiration for “Madiba”, Mr Mandela’s tribal name, and his campaigning for political and social freedom. Mr Obama named none, but Cuba would surely be among them.

“There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality,” Mr Obama said, standing just yards not just from Mr Castro but also Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao.

“There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”

For some, being in the red-carpet section was enough to induce a feeling of awkwardness. Robert Mugabe, the internationally ostracised leader of Zimbabwe, was said to have travelled to Johannesburg only reluctantly. Mr Mandela never made any secret of his disappointment with the path Mr Mugabe took to oppress political opposition in Zimbabwe after having been one of the earliest pioneers of the fight for independence in Africa.

He once told Mr Sarkozy of his Zimbabwean counterpart: “Before I was released from prison, he was the most popular African leader in this area, but when I was released, the media said, ‘This is the end of Mugabe from the point of view of popularity’. In fact, he himself did not want me to come out of jail.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine