Michelle Obama began what officials have billed as her first major overseas trip as US first lady Monday, a visit to South Africa and Botswana focused on young women leaders and the legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle.
She is travelling with her daughters, Malia and Sasha, and her mother, Marian Robinson — but without her husband, US President Barack Obama.
She left Washington on Monday morning and was due at Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria late Monday.
Obama is scheduled to meet South African President Jacob Zuma’s wife Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma in Pretoria on Tuesday morning before heading to Johannesburg for a visit to the Nelson Mandela Foundation, where she will get a tour from the former president’s wife, Graca Machel.
On Tuesday afternoon, Obama will visit a daycare centre in Johannesburg and tour the Apartheid Museum, which chronicles the history of the struggle against white-minority rule.
The six-day trip will also take the first lady to Cape Town and the Botswanan capital, Gaborone.
Obama has a packed schedule that includes a safari in Botswana, a visit with Nobel Peace Prize-winner Desmond Tutu in Cape Town and a trip to the memorial for Hector Pieterson — a 12-year-old student killed during the anti-apartheid Soweto uprising in 1976.
She will also give the keynote address at a conference of the Young African Women Leaders Forum, a two-day meeting of 75 women aged 16 to 30 who are playing leadership roles across the continent.
The visit is Obama’s second trip to sub-Saharan Africa, after a 24-hour stop in Ghana with her husband in 2009, and her first solo trip to the continent.
The US State Department described the visit as a mix of policy trip and personal pilgrimage.
“She’s coming on this trip to talk about women’s development and youth development, and South Africa’s a leader in that, not only on the continent but globally,” said Elizabeth Trudeau, spokeswoman at the US embassy in Pretoria.
“A visit to South Africa is important for them as a family. She’ll be visiting many struggle-era landmarks, including the Apartheid Museum (and) the Hector Pieterson Memorial,” she added.
The White House has emphasised the importance to the first family of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, which President Obama has called his first political cause.
Trudeau said the White House considers this Obama’s “first major overseas trip”. Obama made her first solo trip as first lady last year, stopping briefly in Haiti before continuing on to Mexico for a three-day visit.
Relations between the US and South Africa have suffered a number of diplomatic strains this year.
In March, South Africa allowed exiled Haitian ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to return home, despite a personal appeal from President Obama to keep him in South Africa until after a presidential run-off election that the US feared he would destabilise.
President Zuma has also lashed out at the NATO-led bombing campaign in Libya, which Washington supports.
Nomfundo Ngwenya, a political analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said the visit is a way for the Obama administration to pay attention to South Africa even though the president is tied up at home with a struggling economy and looming elections.
“He’s saying that South Africa is still important and also advancing his wife’s interests, which includes women’s advancement,” Ngwenya told AFP.
But she said at some point Obama will himself have to visit South Africa, the continent’s largest economy.
“Michelle is not a head of state or a decision-maker,” she said.