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For one week in late June, first lady Michelle Obama visited South Africa. This trip highlights the value of South Africa’s partner with the United States in many issues other than politics.
“What is significant about the trip is that it underscores the fact that South Africa, since the establishment of nonracial (politics) has had a string of credible elections, is a country characterized by the rule of law, and is a democracy,” said John Campbell, Ralph Bunche chair in African Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The first lady arrived in Pretoria, South Africa on Monday, June 20, with her two daughters, Sasha and Maila, her mother, and a niece and nephew. This was her fourth trip to the continent and her second solo official visit. The mission behind this trip was to focus on youth leadership and education, including meetings with key figures in the anti-apartheid struggle.
On her agenda, Mrs. Obama was expected to meet with South African President Jacob Zuma, Nobel Iaureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, along with 75 young women leaders including Brendah Nyakudya. She was also scheduled to visit Botswana, Soweto and Robben Isand, where Nelson Mandela was held for a majority of the 27 years he was in detention for fighting apartheid.
Though her schedule, released by the White House, did not mention a meeting with Mandela, Mrs. Obama met with him on Tuesday, June 21, accompanied by her niece and nephew.
On her schedule, she was expected to meet with President Jacob Zuma. However, Zuma’s aides said that he was “not available” to meet her. Instead, he arranged for Corrective Services Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to greet her on her arrival, and one of his three wives, Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma, to meet her briefly on Tuesday. Zuma was out of the country for the first day of Mrs. Obama’s trip, but returned Monday night.
Unfortunately, this trip coincides with a cooling in relations between South Africa and the United States. The previous week, President Jacob Zuma issued a sharp riposte to an appeal by Hilary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, to African leaders to help remove Libya’s Col Muammar Gaddafi.
“We strongly believe that the [UN Security Council] resolution is being abused for regime change, political assassinations and foreign military occupation,” he told parliament the day after Mrs. Clinton’s speech.
Many insisted that Zuma snubbed the first lady, but his spokesman, Zizi Kodwa, said that the president’s diary was full and could not be easily changed, and there was simply no time to fit Mrs. Obama in on her visit.
While Michelle Obama’s intentions for trip was purely for the youth, the trip had faced many criticisms and disappointment from Africa advocates who argue that President Obama, whose father was Kenyan, hasn’t devoted enough time to the continent since winning the presidency. The trip was meant to meet with the youth, yet Mrs. Obama focused her attention and time to meet key officials.
Mwiza Munthali, public outreach director of TransAfrica Forum, argues that U.S. officials “are not seeing Africa as a big priority. There has been some ambivalence.” The president has made just one trip to sub-Saharan Africa since his Jan. 2009 inauguration and has chosen not to accompany his wife on her journey.