Michelle O pays homage to Madiba

2011-06-21 12:07

US First Lady Michelle Obama set out on the first day of a South African tour today to pay homage to former president Nelson Mandela and the struggle against apartheid.

Obama will visit Mandela’s charitable foundation and tour the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s archives with his wife, humanitarian and former Mozambican first lady Graca Machel, the White House said.

She will also visit the Apartheid Museum in Joburg, which chronicles the history of the fight against white-minority rule.

The first lady is travelling with her daughters, Malia and Sasha, and her mother, Marian Robinson – but not her husband, US President Barack Obama.

The White House has emphasised the importance to the first family of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, which President Obama has called his first political cause.

US officials say the American president has periodic telephone contact with Mandela, who led the struggle against apartheid and became South Africa’s first black president in 1994 after spending 27 years as a political prisoner.

It was unclear whether the first lady would meet the 92-year-old icon, who is in frail health and has been under home medical care since he was hospitalised with an acute respiratory infection in January.

The US State Department said it had been told that Madiba is not receiving visitors.

“It’s our understanding that Madiba does not see people any more,” Elizabeth Trudeau, spokesperson at the US embassy in Pretoria, said.

Mandela’s foundation did not rule out a visit but said it does not release details on his schedule.

The first lady, who arrived late yesterday, met this morning with one of President Jacob Zuma’s three wives, Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma, and a group of some 100 invitees in Pretoria.

Zimbabwean media magnate Trevor Ncube, who was at the event, said on Twitter that Obama had taken the time to meet each of the guests personally.

“She took time to talk to all one-on-one. Awesome!!” said the publisher, who owns some of the region’s top newspapers.

South African actress and TV hostess Precious Kofi, who was also at the event, Tweeted that Obama was “warm, sincere and just lovely”.

“From kings to ministers and then myself, Mrs Obama gave each individual her undivided attention,” she said.

Obama was due in Joburg later today for visits to the Mandela Foundation, the Apartheid Museum and a daycare centre.

The six-day trip has a packed schedule that also includes a stop at the memorial for Hector Pieterson – a 12-year-old boy killed during the anti-apartheid Soweto uprising in 1976 – tomorrow, a meeting with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu in Cape Town on Thursday and a safari in Botswana on Saturday.

Tomorrow, Obama will also give the keynote address at a conference of the Young African Women Leaders Forum, a two-day meeting of young women who are playing leadership roles across the continent.

US officials are describing the trip as her first major solo overseas trip as first lady.

The visit is her second official trip to sub-Saharan Africa, after a 24-hour stop in Ghana with her husband in 2009.

Obama made her first solo trip as first lady last year, stopping briefly in Haiti before continuing on to Mexico for a three-day visit.

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