Michelle Obama starts South Africa goodwill tour

Mrs. Obama says her trip highlights the growing importance of Africa on the world stage, but it's also an attempt to smooth the somewhat strained relationship between the US and South Africa.

Charles Dharapak/AP
As part of her tour of South Africa, US first lady Michelle Obama (second from left) visited the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, June 21, with her daughters Sasha and Malia, her mother Marian Robinson, and Nelson Mandela's wife Graca Machel.

US first lady Michelle Obama received a warm welcome on a frigid evening when she arrived last night at a South African air force base in Pretoria. After an 18 hour flight, Mrs. Obama descended from the plane into the cold South African night air to the tarmac to receive flowers and blankets bearing the design of the South African flag from an awaiting South African minister.

The visit comes at a time when the US and South African governments seem to have much to disagree about.

Earlier this year, for instance, South Africa voted as a member of the United Nations Security Council to approve the use of force by NATO to protect civilians in Libya, but later complained that the US and its allies were using that power too liberally to force Muammar Qaddafi from power.

Yet this trip appears to be an attempt to focus on the positives, and to launch what the Washington chattering class calls a “charm offensive.” And South Africans appear to be charmed.

On Twitter, South African blogger Lisa Skinner, shared a photo she had taken with her cellphone, and tweeted, “Holy Moly Michelle Obama is flippin gorgeous. Yowzer.”

During her five-day stay, both here in South Africa and in Botswana, Obama will meet with young women and with youth leaders to learn about new ideas of development.

Before embarking the flight to South Africa, Obama issued the following statement: "I am doing this because we know that Africa is a fundamental part of our interconnected world and when it comes to meeting the challenges of our times, whether it is climate change or extremism, poverty or disease, the world is looking to African nations as vital partners and will be looking across the continent to young people just like all of you to help lead the way."

The Obamas' importance in Africa

It’s hard to overstate just how important the election of an African American as president of the US has been to many Africans.

In Kenya, President Obama is seen as a home-town boy who went far, even though it's really only Mr. Obama's father who hailed from Kenya.

In Zambia, local pop singers celebrated Obama’s election with an R&B song that strung together parts of Obama’s campaign speeches.

Even here in South Africa – a country with a bit of a chip on its shoulder about countries that once supported the racist apartheid government, as the US once did – there’s a fondness for the Obama family, tempered somewhat by disappointment at what the president has managed to achieve in two and a half years.

Michelle Obama's itinerary

Today, Mrs. Obama has visited the Nelson Mandela Foundation, meeting with Mr. Mandela’s wife, Graça Machel, and later with Mr. Mandela himself; and will visit the Apartheid Museum, after meeting with South African President Jacob Zuma’s third and most-junior of wives, Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma.

On Wednesday, Mrs. Obama will give the keynote address at the Young African Women Leaders Forum in Soweto at the struggle-era monument, the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto.

On Thursday, she will fly to Cape Town, where she will visit Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned, and meet up with young South Africans at a forum held at the University of Cape Town.

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