CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA — One of the first efforts Michelle Obama launched in the East Wing was a mentoring program for young women to drive home her message that success requires hard work. This week, Obama took that message to Africa for the first time.
At the mid-point of her tour of South Africa and Botswana, the first lady has heard the uplifting stories of young women who have overcome the odds. She met with one of the first black academics to earn a PhD in South Africa, several of the nation's Rhodes scholars and the creator of a micro-finance institution in Senegal.
But she has not met with many women like Promise Mootle, a 22-year-old single mother. Like nearly half of young black women in South Africa, Mootle is unemployed and her prospects are bleak, a situation that has led to despair in some communities.
As the first lady’s motorcade passed through the township of Soweto on Wednesday, Mootle stood on the side of the road behind yellow police tape with a dusty flowered wrap tied around her head, a frown on her face and her arms folded
“It's not every day that the first black lady U.S. president comes to our country,” Mootle said. “But we are a little disappointed because we will not get to see her. We will not even get to shake her hand.”
Obama’s visit — which has been jam-packed with events put together by the U.S. Embassy here — has focused on the successes and potential of young people. In Johannesburg, she has spent time with 76 handpicked young women, a group a White House aide described as “some of the most awesome women in Africa.” On Thursday, she took questions from 50 high school students — more girls than boys — from disadvantaged communities.
Obama has spoken about domestic abuse and HIV/AIDS, has seen the shantytowns and visited the impoverished community of Zandsprit, where many of the handmade metal and wood shacks have no electricity or plumbing. She has also mentioned unemployment and job creation.
But Obama described her mission as one of positive encouragement, and State Department officials said they wanted her to focus on the region’s successes.
“Whenever I’m around young leaders who are struggling and working and doing the right thing, it’s emotional for me,” she said in an interview.
Obama spent half a day in Soweto meeting with the women in small groups, listening as they talked about everything from patriarchy in South African government, where the president has three wives, to violence in schools.
“I’m just here to listen,” Obama told them. “This is just a beginning.”
Outside the library where the sessions were held in Soweto, there were reminders of the difficulties young women here face.
Mootle, for example, has two children, ages 5 and 3, and never finished high school. “Life has been difficult,” she said. “I'm finding jobs here and there, mostly on contract. We're just at home doing nothing if we don't have the money to go look for work.”
Like nearly a quarter of working women in South Africa, she has mostly worked in domestic labor, such as cleaning homes.
The successful South African women surrounding Obama this week acknowledged the challenges that facing most black South African women, who are disproportionately unemployed.
Sitting with her friends in their business suits as invited guests to the first lady's speech at a church in Soweto, Nomkhita Nqweni was moved to tears as Obama spoke of the power of women.
“We still have abductions of young women — as young as 14 and 15 — who are taken from their families in rural areas,” Nqweni said. "That in a modernizing South Africa has no place."
Several times during Obama’s remarks at the church in Soweto, she seemed to hold back tears as she tied South Africa's anti-apartheid movement to the civil rights movement in the United States to the challenges that continue to face Africans, particularly women.
In speaking against domestic violence, she quoted a saying here: “If you hit a woman, you hit a rock.”
The U.S. ambassador to South Africa, Donald Gips, said Obama’s message was timely. “Young people on the continent are demanding improvement in their leadership,” Gips said. “That's part of the power.”
Lucinda Evans, whose anti-domestic violence organization, Philisa Abafazi Bethu, was invited to an event Obama attended Thursday, said the first lady's presence alone may be enough.
“Her coming here is going to be a wake-up call for a lot of people in the government that the plight of young women in South Africa needs to be prioritized,” Evans said. “We have a great democracy and poor gatekeepers. Women are still marginalized here.”