In South Africa, Michelle Obama helps rebuild trust and wows the young women

Many South Africans dislike what they see as US unilateralism. Mrs. Obama's visit is an attempt to remind South Africans of shared history and common goals.

Charles Dharapak/Reuters
First lady Michelle Obama gardens as she participates in a community service project at Vhuthilo Community Center in Soweto township, Johannesburg, South Africa, on Wednesday, June 22, 2011.

Michelle Obama kneels in the red, iron-rich soil of a community garden and starts pulling carrots. Beside her are young women from around Africa, all participants in an African Young Women’s Forum here in Johannesburg. The first lady chats with them about the importance of volunteer work, nutrition, and community health projects like this one, Nanga Vhuthilo Community Center.

This is good old American retail politics, of course, complete with visuals and worthy causes and value statements. To all appearances, Mrs. Obama seems to genuinely love it. She could, of course, pick one carrot, smile for the camera, and be in the hotel before sundown. But by the time she’s done, there’s a pile of carrots behind her, and her black slacks will never look the same again.

“This is good for the biceps,” she jokes, tossing another carrot into the pile.

Officially, this trip – Obama’s first solo travel to Africa – is a chance to show her country’s support for the kinds of development projects done here at Nanga Vhuthilo – a community health, nutrition, and education center for the children of AIDS patients – and to promote the development of Africa’s women and youths. But coming at a difficult time for US and South African relations, the first lady’s trip to South Africa is a chance for the Obama White House to use a bit of what Washington analysts call “soft power,” or the power to persuade by focusing on shared positive aspirations and goals.

Rebuilding a relationship

“South Africa has these mixed feelings about the United States on a lot of issues, the unilateralism shown in Iraq, the sense of neocolonialism,” says Jennifer Cooke, an analyst on Africa for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “So this is an opportunity for the first lady to build some of that relationship back, to engage the South African people directly. It broadens the basis of the engagement so it’s not all focused on the hard questions, and it gives room to bring up a number of those questions as well.”

For a generation of Americans who grew up at the peak of the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s and early 1990s, the fight for freedom in South Africa resonates strongly with a similar civil rights struggle back home in the US. Yet in a world where the US wields power almost unchallenged, emerging democratic powers like South Africa have increasingly come to view the US with suspicion.

Obama’s visit is one attempt to dispel that suspicion, and to remind the South African people that on many social issues, the US and South Africa are actually on the same side – one key example being the president’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief, which pays for antiretroviral drug treatments in AIDS-affected countries.

The centerpiece of Obama’s visit was a keynote address to the 76 participants of the first-ever African Young Women’s Forum, in the historically important Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto. Obama paid tribute to the older “struggle generation” who organized protests against the hated apartheid system that guaranteed the rule of South Africa’s minority white community. And she also paid tribute to today’s younger generation, represented by the Women’s Forum, who had the skills and passions to make a change in the major issues of today.

Speaking of that older generation, she said, "All of you, the young people of today, are the heirs of this blood, sweat, sacrifice, and love. So the question today is, what will you make of that inheritance?"

"You can be the generation that ends HIV/AIDS in our time, the generation that fights not just the disease, but the stigma of the disease," Obama added. "You can be the generation that holds your leaders accountable for open, honest government at every level, government that stamps out corruption."

Listening intently

Brendah Nyakudya, editor of Afropolitan magazine, was one of the young women in that audience, and she found herself spellbound by Obama’s speech.

“For me, for the longest time, I’ve been thinking ‘we’re the next generation, when will we have our time to make a difference?’ and Mrs. Obama was saying, ‘you’re the now generation. Don’t wait for someone to create a new world. This is your time. You need to do this yourselves,” says Ms. Nyakudya. “We all need to just do what we’re waiting for others to do. We’ve got the skills. We’ve got the passion. We need to do this.”

Victor Dlamini, a social commentator from Johannesburg who attended the Regina Mundi speech, says that this is one of those speeches that he will remember for a long time.

“As South Africans, we are used to hearing speeches in the context of the struggle, and you become rather jaded,” says Mr. Dlamini. “But she really connected the dots. She said ‘You are the freedom generation, and the work is never finished. She spoke with incredible sincerity, she spoke of anecdotes of ordinary people. It was really incredible.”

Inside the compound of the Nanga Vhuthilo community center, Obama circulated among the child clients, giving hugs, playing games, and when a young men’s chorus broke into a doo-wop song, in Zulu, about the imagined pleasures of driving a Mitsubishi Pajero sports utility vehicle, Obama sauntered into the center of the group and danced.

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