JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Michelle Obama began a tour of South Africa on Tuesday, meeting anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, young African women, government officials at the start of a symbolic journey for three generations of the Obama family.
Obama, her two daughters and her mother met with Mandela, 92, in his home in Houghton, a suburb of Johannesburg.
The first lady, who arrived at a Pretoria air base late Monday, will spend six days in South Africa and Botswana with daughters Sasha and Malia, her mother Marian Robinson, and a niece and nephew in tow.
Her daughters were wrapped in blankets in the colors of South Africa’s flag as they stepped off the plane in the chilly night air of a southern hemisphere winter. The first lady wore a bright orange and black sweater by Nigerian-British designer Duro Olowu.
She was scheduled to meet one of South African President Jacob Zuma's three wives, Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma, on Tuesday morning in Pretoria, before visiting the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg for a tour by Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel.
A meeting between the first lady and Mandela was unconfirmed due to his fragile health but at the last minute it was decided that he was in good shape for the visit. In January, South Africa’s first black president was hospitalized for an acute respiratory infection.
While South Africa is thrilled to welcome the first lady and family, Michelle Obama's trip to South Africa and Botswana has raised questions about her husband's perceived neglect of the African continent.
On his family’s first official trip to Africa in 2009, President Obama made an historic speech to the Ghanaian parliament in which he stressed the continent’s importance to the world. The first African-American U.S. president spoke of the “the blood of Africa” within him, and vowed that America would support Africa in its struggle for prosperity and freedom.
But two years later, Obama has spent no time in Africa beyond that initial 24-hour whirlwind trip to Ghana. As his wife, Michelle, arrives in southern Africa for what the White House is touting as her first major solo overseas trip, there are questions about the president’s conspicuous absence from the continent.
The first lady’s visit will focus on young women leaders and the legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle, and she will tour such historically significant sites as Soweto township near Johannesburg and Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned off Cape Town.
“A visit to South Africa is important for them as a family,” said Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau, spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in Pretoria.
Her ambitious program — without the president — highlights Barack Obama’s lack of personal attention to sub-Saharan Africa, a glaring omission that has caused disappointment both at home and among Africans.
Expectations for American relations with Africa were sky high when Obama took office. He had previously visited his father’s ancestral village in Kenya, and as a senator he devoted attention to African countries. Obama has called South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement his first political cause.
"For the first time ever an American president can talk tough to African leaders and not be accused of being racist, and not be accused of being imperialist, colonialist," said Salim Amin, a Kenyan journalist, discussing Obama’s election in 2008.
But much of U.S. policy toward Africa remains the same as it was under George W. Bush’s administration, which was praised for its focus on AIDS and public health issues.
South Africa’s best known AIDS activist group, the Treatment Action Campaign, has even accused Obama’s government of retreating from its commitment to fight the AIDS epidemic by scaling down funding increases for treatment programs.
South Africa invited Obama to attend the soccer World Cup last summer, the first to be held on African soil, and he was widely expected to come. But Obama said he would only travel to South Africa if the U.S. team made the finals — and they were knocked out by Ghana in the round of 16.
Meanwhile, as Michelle Obama begins her African adventure, she is being welcomed with open arms.
“Michelle magic for Joburg,” said a banner headline in a Johannesburg newspaper, using the city’s nickname.
Her schedule includes a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, a meeting with Nobel Peace Prize-winner Desmond Tutu in Cape Town, and a stop at a memorial honoring 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, who was shot and killed by government police during the 1976 student uprising in the black township of Soweto.
On Wednesday in Soweto she will also give the keynote speech at a conference of the Young African Women Leaders Forum, at the Regina Mundi Church.
In Botswana, long considered a beacon for good government in Africa, she will meet with President Ian Khama and visit a center that teaches teenagers about leadership and HIV/AIDS, before ending the trip with a private safari for her family.