New York Times News Service

JOHANNESBURG — The possibility of a meeting between the two historic figures — the first black president of the United States and the first black president of South Africa — was so tantalizingly close. But with Nelson Mandela, 94, fighting for his life in a Pretoria hospital, President Barack Obama abandoned his hope for a visit and instead Saturday used every stop here to talk in emotional and sweeping terms about what Mandela meant to the world, and to him.

“I expressed my hope that Madiba draws peace and comfort from the time that he is spending with loved ones,” Obama said after a meeting with some of Mandela’s children and grandchildren, using the clan name by which Mandela is widely known. “I also reaffirmed the profound impact that his legacy has had in building a free South Africa, and in inspiring people around the world — including me.”

In an earlier news conference with South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, he also spoke about one of Mandela’s greatest gifts: his ability to see beyond his own considerable legend.

“Despite how revered he was,” Obama said, Mandela understood that government must be “bigger than just one person, even one of the greatest people in history. What an incredible lesson that is.”

Obama had built his Africa trip months ago on the hope of meeting with Mandela, whom he has called a personal hero. Obama did meet with 10 of Mandela’s family members.

Obama still plans to salute Mandela’s life with a visit today to Robben Island, the prison where Mandela spent most of his incarceration.

Obama began his first full day in South Africa in a private meeting with Zuma. Afterward, Obama told reporters from both countries that his top priority for Africa was to help its governments to establish more stable and transparent democracies and to promote greater trade and investment that will help inject life into the economies of both the U.S. and the continent.

Outside Mandela’s house, people were more focused on their more immediate future. “According to a lot of black people I spoke to through my staff, they all fear an eruption of violence,” said Laurence Hodes. “But I don’t think so. This is history.”