SOWETO, South Africa – To the young African women who crammed into the pews of a Soweto church to hear Michelle Obama speak, the message from the glamorous U.S. first lady was time-worn but still inspirational: “Yes, you can.”
In the United States it may have become hackneyed, but the slogan has resonance in South Africa’s biggest black township, where unemployment and poverty remain widespread. The catchphrase from her husband’s 2008 presidential campaign had the crowd at Regina Mundi Church chanting along.
In South Africa, more than half of 15- to 24-year-olds are unemployed — and that’s only counting those actively seeking jobs. Obama’s message of encouragement, and the story of her own background as a descendant of slaves — raised in a one-bedroom Chicago apartment — struck a powerful chord with young people attending her address to the U.S.-sponsored Young African Women Leaders Forum.
Onthatile Mataboge, 22, who had travelled to the church with a group of top high school students from the South African city of Rustenburg, said the first lady’s personal history was motivational.
“The background we come from doesn’t determine where we are going,” she said.
“I have always thought that she was humble and today confirmed it,” added Mmakgota Rakuba, 23. “It was like she was talking to me.”
In a 30-minute address to a crowd that included cultural leaders, students in school uniforms, government and opposition politicians and a Zulu choir in traditional beaded hats, Obama drew parallels between the black struggle movements in South Africa and the United States.
Thirty-five years ago this month, students sought refuge at Regina Mundi Church as they fled a police assault on young people protesting forced Afrikaans-language instruction in schools, Obama recounted to the crowd.
It was June 16, 1976, the start of the Soweto Uprising and a key moment in South Africa’s history, that eventually led to the fall of white rule.
Hundreds were killed by apartheid-era security forces in the crackdown. Police even opened fire inside the church, where scores of people were injured and evidence of the assault is still visible.
“It has been more than three decades, but those bullet holes in the ceiling, this broken altar still stand as vivid reminders of the history that unfolded here,” Obama said.
Petronice Makwane, 64, a Catholic who has attended the church since it opened in 1964, described Michelle Obama’s speech as deeply moving.
“It was like having a president here,” Makwane said. “She was so powerful.”
Makwane, who grew up just across the street, remembers the day in 1976 when her neighborhood descended into chaos. Students fleeing the tear gas ran past her house, where the family’s washing was hung on the line. The demonstrators were in panic grabbing the clean clothes to try and wipe the tear gas from their faces.
“It was terrible,” she said.
During the fight against apartheid, Regina Mundi Church also served as a gathering place for banned political discussions, and has been called the “parliament of Soweto.”
Nelson Mandela’s wife Graca Machel, who introduced Michelle Obama, described the church as the community’s heart, and praised the first lady as “one of the beautiful daughters of our times.”
Obama said that Africa is particularly important to the world’s future because of its youthfulness, with people under the age of 25 making up 60 percent of the population.
“More than ever before, we will be looking to all of you, our young people, to lead the way,” she said.
The first lady spoke of the parallels between the Soweto Uprising and the American civil rights movement, with young people rising up for freedom.
“And all of you — the young people of this continent — you are the heirs of that blood, sweat, sacrifice, and love,” she said.
“The question today is: What will you make of that inheritance?”
One of the youth delegations at the church came from Diepsloot, a township north of Johannesburg that was created after the end of apartheid in 1994, and where about 200,000 people live in shacks. Diepsloot was recently in the news after the horrific mob justice killing of an innocent man was caught on video.
The teenagers from Diepsloot were youth mentors that teach leadership skills to younger children through after-school sports, a program run by non-profit group Afrika Tikkun.
Marvellous Mathebula, 15, one of the mentors, said the first lady’s message of the importance of working to transform your community touched a nerve with her.
“It’s supporting children to succeed rather than to be in the streets,” she said of her own community work.
Mathebula had another thought about Michelle Obama: “I just wish that she was my mother.”