Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a Johannesburg-based journalist who has lived in South Africa since 1997.
I didn't have to be in the room or even in the country — which I am not right now — to have anticipated the rousing reception for Michelle Obama when she visited with young women and girls in South Africa's black township of Soweto. Reading the White House pool reports, as even most reporters who are there must do, reminds me that I have been there, done that. While I don't have anything like the stature of America's first lady, I am up close and personal with the profile of the kind of woman those young girls and women in Soweto listen to with intense interest and appreciation.
What I learned from visiting townships like Soweto or other locations where Mrs. Obama and her daughters danced with the young women as they sang, "We Are Marching in the Light of God," is that being from a mostly poor, impoverished place, where generations of black people have known nothing but oppression and denial, has not in any way diminished their humanity or their capacity to dream, though it may have stood in the way of realizing those dreams.
When I have gone to places where Mrs. Obama has visited, I have shared, as Michelle Obama did this week, the triumph of my generation in the U.S. over similar kinds of adversity, brought on by white lawmakers and their brutal enforcers, who did everything in their power to diminish us and to turn our dreams into nightmares.
When I shared our stories of triumph over a racist system in this country, and compared it to their own, especially the role young women like themselves played in that triumph, they smiled broadly and applauded enthusiastically as they did for Michelle Obama. The fact that apartheid had been defeated didn't immediately mean that there was the wherewithal to achieve their dreams, but I could see for myself that it opened the door to dreaming as never before.
And I was encouraged that they were living in the realm in which my own mother lived as she encouraged me to dream impossible dreams, knowing that dreams propel ambition. Michelle Obama, too, recalled the struggles of young people in the U.S. and in South Africa. Many, if not most, of them were "born frees" — those born after the South African anti-apartheid struggle was won in 1994 — or who, as Nelson Mandela's wife, Graça Machel, said, were toddlers at the time — and their memories are fading, if not nonexistent.
But standing in Regina Mundi, the church that was respite for the young people who lit the fuse that ignited the most critical phase of the anti-apartheid struggle in 1976, Michelle Obama reminded them of lessons they should never forget: "The story of young people 20 years ago, 50 years ago, who marched until their feet were raw," she said, "who endured beatings and bullets and decades behind bars, who risked and sacrificed everything they had for the freedom they deserved. And it is because of them we are able to gather here today. It is because of them that so many of these young women leaders can now pursue their dreams."
And the clear payoff of looking back came as Michelle Obama said, "It is because of them that I stand before you as first lady of the United States of America." Those words brought thunderous applause and, I would bet, no small amount of moist eyes, if not tears — but tears of pride that someone who looked like they did could speak the words no other black woman in history could utter.
And while Mrs. Obama's trip has not been without some controversy and nay-saying — President Zuma did not meet with her, and some members of South African civil society criticized U.S. policies that they believe are not supportive of the poor — there is no doubt in my mind that Mrs. Obama's visit, along with the mother who made her the strong woman she is and the daughters who are learning from both of them, is having a positive impact in the column marked "inspiration."
And while inspiration can't put food on the table of a family living in Zandspruit, the shantytown she visited — which, by the way, may not even have had a table — Michelle Obama's visit, as one of my young friends in South Africa put it, "is a timely reminder of what a free, educated and affluent society like America offers: the opportunity for every citizen to achieve their dreams, regardless of where they start." In an email to me, he went on to say: "The face that Barack and Michelle Obama put on America shouldn't be underestimated, given the ideological battle that's going on in the world and that's now starting to play out here."
In fact, in Soweto, the first lady seemed to speak to that when she told a packed church of young women leaders: "You can be the generation that holds your leaders accountable for open, honest government at every level, government that stamps out corruption and protects the rights of every citizen to speak freely, to worship openly, to love whomever they choose."
Some of the women in South Africa whom I communicated with also said it shouldn't be underestimated that Michelle Obama is a strong female role model visiting a country still ensnarled in a patriarchal culture. South Africa's levels of gender violence and rape are among the highest in the world, and 45 percent of female-headed households here live below the poverty line. This is a country where, despite the fact that women in Parliament have achieved a level of parity enjoyed by only three other countries, in the private sector, there are only 15 women CEOs at companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, 20 women chairpersons and only 16 percent women in senior management positions.
And that is surely part of the reason the crowd applauded when Mrs. Obama said, "You can be the generation to ensure that women are no longer second-class citizens, that girls take their rightful places in our schools. You can be the generation that stands up and says that violence against women in any form, in any place, including the home — especially the home — that isn't just a women's rights violation. It's a human rights violation. And it has no place in any society."
To date, no one has been able to affect the daunting effect of HIV/AIDS on young women and girls. They are the fasting-growing cohort of new infections, although the rates of new infections appear to have stabilized. Still, with some 5.6 million infections, South Africa has the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. It is not likely that Michelle Obama will succeed where countless others have failed in delivering an effective message of "safe sex."
But she addressed the issue head on, drawing even more rousing applause when she told the young women, "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, the generation that teaches the world that HIV is fully preventable and treatable, and should never be a source of shame."
Some critics of U.S. policy argue we should be doing more. But Michelle Obama's exposure to this area just may give her the kind of firsthand information that will inform in a unique way America's commitment to helping combat the most challenging epidemic facing the country — and much of the continent, including Botswana, her next stop.