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US First Lady Meets Nelson Mandela in South Africa

  • Nico Colombant

US first lady Michelle Obama (L) with former South African President Nelson Mandela, at this home, in Houghton, South Africa, June 21, 2011

US first lady Michelle Obama (L) with former South African President Nelson Mandela, at this home, in Houghton, South Africa, June 21, 2011

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama has met with black liberation icon Nelson Mandela during her first full day of a two-country southern Africa visit.

White House officials had said it would be very unlikely Michelle Obama would get to meet the former anti-apartheid activist and former South African president Nelson Mandela on her trip.

But soon after she began her first full day in South Africa, and a brief visit to the Nelson Mandela foundation, the U.S. first lady paid a courtesy visit to the nearby Johannesburg home of the frail 92-year-old. He has been under home medical care since he was hospitalized earlier this year with acute respiratory infection and rarely receives visitors.

U.S. President Barack Obama, the first African-American to hold the office, has said South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle against white minority rule was his first political cause.

The president is not on this trip, but his two daughters, Malia and Sasha, are - along with several other relatives - and they all met with Mandela.

On Mandela's office desk there is a 2006 picture of the elder South African statesman with visiting then-senator Barack Obama. Michelle Obama was quoted as saying her husband was "pouty" that he was not on the current trip. An official at the Mandela foundation called her "a lovely woman without any airs."

Other highlights of the day included scheduled stops at the U.S. Embassy, the Apartheid Museum, and a day care center.

Wednesday, Mrs. Obama will spend most of the day in the Soweto area of Johannesburg, starting with a speech before young African women leaders. She also will visit the Hector Pieterson museum, named after a young boy who was killed in anti-apartheid protests in Soweto in 1976.

A local high school student who admires the American first lady for her repeated messages of youth empowerment is 17-year-old Thato, who said today's youths fight for their own success.

"In order to do that it is only through education," said Thato. "So all we are fighting about is just to work hard, go to school and be successful. So that is what we are fighting about. Being able to be independent, and knowing your responsibilities, things that you have to do as a person, as an individual. I think our fight is about that, that we have to be successful and reach our goals."

She called Michelle Obama a new version of the late British Princess Diana, an international personality admired for her style and charity work. The Soweto high school student said the first lady also offers a good combination of traits.

"Looking at her, she is motivating a lot of young children, and teenagers like us," she said. "And on top of that, since we live in a world of style and a lot of stuff, I know she is one of those fashionable ladies. So hey, it is a good thing. But then on top of that, it is not about what she has or what not, but the fact that she is encouraging young teenagers to become what they want to be in life, so it is a great thing."

South African newspapers noted that when Michelle Obama arrived in South Africa late Monday she stepped off her plane in a bright orange and black sweater by Nigerian-British designer Duro Olowu.

The southern Africa trip continues this week with stops in Cape Town, Robben Island, where Mandela was held for 18 years, and then on to Botswana.