It surely cannot be counted against Michelle Obama that some of the fine print was omitted from her recent tour of southern Africa. If she was criticised for failing to mention unemployment while empowering young women in the Western Cape, the rest of her upbeat campaign could surely withstand it.
The world’s most famous woman, according to Forbes magazine, had a mission – to talk about youth leadership, education, health and wellness. She’d also come to talk about the US partnering with Africa.
But that was sandwiched in between the myriad messages that took her into the arms of the struggle heroes and giants, from Nelson Mandela to Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
It had this “Queen of Africa” hailed by Graça Machel and welcomed home by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
She’d come to rekindle old ties that hailed back to June 1966 when President Robert Kennedy spoke out against apartheid on a famous South African tour which Barack Obama had traced when he visited the country as senator in 2006. On her glamorous, splashy trip, the First Lady of the US swept the South African media, as well as the travelling crews from Washington, off their feet.
Weathering rumours about being snubbed by President Jacob Zuma, she lined up alongside his third wife, Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma, for a photograph. She had come to greet and meet, to raise Aids awareness – as her nation’s own mother and the proponent of her husband’s health-care plan and her own successful campaign against childhood obesity – not to show anybody up. At Regina Mundi Church in Soweto she brought an audience of more than 1 000 to tears. Hailing the 30 000 women of South Africa who had resisted the extension of the pass laws in 1956, she remembered their motto – “you strike the woman, you strike the rock”.
The applause was moving. She was grateful to the young people who faced bullets during the ’76 Soweto Uprising and fought “so that I could stand before you today as the First Lady of the United States of America”.
In that emotional moment, great dreams were invoked in the young women who were among the 76 chosen from South Africa and the continent to attend the Young African Women’s Leaders Forum to workshop leadership and community.
Obama came bearing the gifts of her nation, which she illustrated generously before the cameras as she dribbled football , did press-ups, danced with the orphans, read Dr Seuss and planted spinach in the garden of the US-funded HIV-Aids care centre. She had come to talk out against gender violence, specifically too, against domestic violence – a human rights abuse and for the right of people to love whoever they choose.
But she spelt out her purpose. “The… reason why I wanted to come here to South Africa to speak with all of you. As my husband has said, Africa is a fundamental part of our interconnected world. And when it comes to defining challenges of our times, creating jobs in our global economy, promoting democracy and development, confronting climate change, extremism, poverty and disease, for all this, the world is looking to Africa as a partner.”
Ahead of her visit the US government issued a press release stating that “South Africa is a vital global partner for the US, as political leader and economic engine in the continent, and a historic example of democratic transition in Africa and around the world”.
Obama mentioned the word corruption three times in the Regina Mundi speech that emphasised the fact that she and her husband had earned their place on the continent. They had done this because Barack Obama had organised boycotts against apartheid, because during the Struggle South Africans sang the US freedom song We Shall Overcome, while American Civil Rights activists sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. They had earned their place on the continent because Martin Luther King, whose works were now read by children in a US-funded library in Soweto had met with Chief Albert Luthuli.
Simunye, we are one!
Michelle Obama wanted it known that “my husband’s administration is not simply focused on extending a helping hand to Africa”. It, said Obama, was “focusing on partnering with Africans who will shape their future by combating corruption, and building strong democratic institutions, by growing new crops and, caring for the sick”.
But although her visit is widely interpreted by analysts as an exercise in soft power, Obama is not a foreign minister.
She is an image maker who endorses her husband’s policies, paving the way for the 2012 election which he looks set to enter with fervour.
This is despite the fact that he appeared on NBC’s Today show on June 14 saying: “Michelle and the kids are wonderful in that if I said, ‘You know, guys, I want to do something different’, they’re not invested in daddy being president or my husband being president.”
By talking grass roots and reminding us of her humble beginnings and those of her husband, she has laid down an essential plank of his campaign.