JOHANNESBURG — Michelle Obama on Wednesday told young African leaders, including members of South Africa’s post-apartheid generation, that there are more causes worth fighting for and more history to be made. She urged them to be the ones who end hunger, wipe out HIV/AIDS and protect women’s rights.
In an emotionally stirring speech at a church that became a popular refuge during the fight against government-imposed segregation in South Africa, America’s first lady drew on the struggle for racial equality in the U.S. and in this country as she sought to inspire young people to become the next generation of problem-solvers.
“I know that as your generation looks back on that struggle and on the many liberation movements of the past century, you may think that all the great moral struggles have already been won,” Mrs. Obama said in a keynote address to a U.S.-sponsored leadership conference for more than 70 young African women. “But while today’s challenges might not always inspire the lofty rhetoric and high drama of struggles past, the injustices at hand are no less glaring. The human suffering is no less acute.
“So make no mistake about it: There are still so many causes worth sacrificing for. There is still so much history yet to be made,” she said.
Sixty percent of Africa’s population is under age 25 and two-thirds of South Africans are younger than 30, Mrs. Obama said.
The first lady said this generation can be the one that brings prosperity to forgotten corners of the world, banishes hunger from Africa and ends HIV/AIDS and the stigma associated with it. She said they can ensure that women are no longer treated as second-class citizens, that girls get an education and that any type of violence against women is seen as a violation of human rights.
“That is the history that your generation can make,” Mrs. Obama said.
She received an effusive introduction from Graca Machel, the wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela, who said Mrs. Obama is the “queen of our world.”
That welcome, which included music from a choir whose members wore colorful Zulu hats, was so rousing that Mrs. Obama was visibly moved by the time she got to the microphone. She shook her head as if in disbelief, crossed her arms over her chest and thanked the audience for that “almost overwhelming” introduction.
In her remarks, Mrs. Obama told Africa’s youth to reject the “false comfort” that they shouldn’t be concerned about the suffering of others and to not get impatient over the slow pace of change. She told them to not underestimate their power to make a difference and suggested that they think of one another’s accomplishments when self-doubt starts to creep in.
She said she was thinking about the young activists who met at the American Library in Soweto during the apartheid era to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches and about students on U.S. college campuses, including her future husband, who planned boycotts to support students in South Africa.
Nearly 50 years after the victories of the U.S. civil rights movement, Mrs. Obama said, “We still struggle every day to perfect our union and live up to our ideals. And every day, it is our young people who are leading the way” by joining the military, teaching in struggling schools and volunteering countless hours in their communities.
“Today, I want you to know that as you seek to lift up your families, your communities, your countries and our world, you are never alone,” she said.
Mrs. Obama delivered her 30-minute address at the Regina Mundi Church in the black township of Soweto. The church became more than a religious sanctuary 35 years ago, in June 1976, when police fired upon thousands of students who were peacefully protesting the government’s decision to require them to begin studying in Afrikaans, the language of the country’s Dutch settlers.
Students fled into the church but police followed, with tear gas and bullets. No one was killed inside Regina Mundi, but hundreds did die that day, including a 13-year-old school boy named Hector Pieterson, who became a symbol of the Soweto uprisings.
Mrs. Obama is halfway through a weeklong goodwill mission to South Africa and Botswana, during which she is promoting youth leadership, education and health and wellness and steeping herself and her family in South Africa’s racist past. She is on her second international trip without the president, but is accompanied by her two daughters, Malia, 12, and Sasha, 10; her mother, Marian Robinson, and a niece and nephew, Leslie and Avery Robinson, 15 and 19, respectively. They are the children of her brother, Craig.
She arrived late Monday in Pretoria. On Tuesday, she got an unexpected chance to meet with Mandela, who has largely retired from public life since leaving office and, at age 92, is in declining health.
Mrs. Obama said Wednesday that the meeting was “very surreal” and that she was still trying to process it all. Her entire family was invited to meet Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison for his role in the anti-apartheid movement, at his Johannesburg home. He was released in 1990 and became president four years later.
“It was powerful. I think I’m still exhausted from just the reality of it, but at the same time it was fun,” she told four Washington-based print journalists who traveled with her to Africa.
Mrs. Obama said the message she delivered to Mandela was: “Words can’t express how much your life has meant to who my husband is and who I am.”