What's Michelle Obama Doing in Africa?


Whether speaking to students in Mexico, Brazil, the U.K. or Washington, D.C., first lady Michelle Obama has always focused on leadership, encouraging young people to excel academically, serve their communities and know that they control their destinies. Reflecting her own personal story, it's an inspirational and sometimes emotional message that Mrs. Obama will revisit this week during her visit to South Africa and Botswana. But the trip will involve more than her first lady platform. The Obama administration says it's also designed to advance the president's Africa agenda.

"The president has tried to make it clear that he has an agenda centered around young people and African capacity building instead of simply the provision of assistance," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters during a White House conference call previewing the first lady's trip. "That capacity building is best focused on empowering democratic models, like South Africa and Botswana, [as well as] health, education and civil society more broadly."


Accordingly, Mrs. Obama's schedule includes activities that dovetail with her husband's policy priorities, including meetings with the presidents of both countries. "This is a very important trip for Michelle Obama to take, and it's huge for southern Africa," Nicole C. Lee, president of the TransAfrica Forum, told The Root. "It shows the development of civil society in Africa, and how people are really pushing the margins right now and holding their governments accountable. To have the first lady involved in that is really monumental."

Michelle Obama — joined by her mother, Marian Robinson, daughters Malia and Sasha Obama, and niece and nephew Leslie and Avery Robinson — touched down in South Africa on Monday. Here are the highlights to look out for in the coming week.

African Democracy

"It's no coincidence that [the first lady] would be visiting countries that have embraced democracy, and have shown that not only does their democracy deliver for its citizens but it can provide a positive example for the neighborhood that these countries are in as well," said Rhodes, adding that we share a common interest with Africa. "The United States will be more secure when Africa's more secure," he said.

Rhodes said that the administration has also supported democracy in Africa by getting involved in Southern Sudan's vote to secede from Sudan, and supporting the U.N. resolution against President Laurent Gbagbo of Côte d'Ivoire during the country's violent unrest. Lee, however, takes issue with the extent of the administration's efforts.

"When there's been conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ivory Coast, for example, the Obama administration has not used the [military's] U.S. Africa Command to ensure that genocide is prevented and that people are receiving humanitarian assistance," she said.


Youth Empowerment

Mrs. Obama's South Africa visit coincides with the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid, and several events commemorate the fight against the brutal system of white-minority rule. In Johannesburg, Graça Machel, wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela, will guide a viewing of Mandela's archives at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The family will also tour Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum and Robben Island, where Mandela was held for 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned for his anti-apartheid and other political activities.


In Soweto, they will visit the Hector Pieterson Memorial, which honors a 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed by police during an anti-apartheid protest. Hundreds of other black schoolchildren were killed on that day — June 16, 1976 — which is now commemorated annually as Youth Day. The role of young people in the eventual dismantling of apartheid further underscores the first lady's theme of youth empowerment.

"There was a time when it was seen as impossible for apartheid to ever be abolished," said Lee. "It was an accepted mainstay, and it took regular people to change that — in Africa and all over the world. Regular people can also change things today by looking to themselves and their own communities."


The first lady will also deliver the keynote address to the Young African Women Leaders Forum in Soweto and meet with students from poor communities during a campus tour of the University of Cape Town. But Lee is wary of the overall message's substance.

"It's important to talk about empowerment, but what are we empowering them to do?" said Lee, who criticized the Obama administration for not focusing enough on the lack of jobs in Africa and for continuing policies that allow corporations to take land rights from farmers. "We can't get lost in notions of empowerment when we really need to be talking about brass tacks and the basic needs for building their countries."


Global Health

In both South Africa and Botswana, the first lady will meet with organizations dedicated to fighting HIV/AIDS through innovative methods. In Cape Town, she'll do soccer drills with an organization that uses the sport as a health education tool. In Gaborone, Botswana, she'll visit youth leaders at a children's clinic who educate their teenage peers about the disease. In the face of criticism from global AIDS groups that the Obama administration has not provided enough new funding for antiretroviral drugs, Rhodes defended their commitment.


"We have actually increased resources for HIV/AIDS," said Rhodes, who added that they have nested their HIV/AIDS work under a broader global health initiative that includes malaria, maternal health and other issues. "Our analysis was that it was necessary to fight HIV/AIDS directly with antiviral drugs and other capabilities, but what was really going to make the game-changing difference in the long run was building up African public health systems."

Rhodes explained that this broader approach includes empowering successful models, such as the programs that Mrs. Obama will highlight on her trip, that other health officials around the continent can learn from and replicate. "The first lady's emphasis on health is very much in line with our theory of building African capacity, just as her focus on HIV/AIDS is around things like awareness and education, which are necessary to reduce the rates of infection and eventually eliminate the disease."


To learn more about the first lady's trip, visit whitehouse.gov/youngafrica.

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.