In Soweto, Michelle Obama urges fight against AIDS

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US First Lady Michelle Obama invoked the legacy of South Africa's liberation struggle Wednesday to urge young people to end the AIDS epidemic, in a speech at a landmark Soweto church.

Regina Mundi church was once a haven in the sprawling Johannesburg township for activists fighting white-minority rule, and Obama tapped into that memory and the American civil rights movement to encourage young leaders.

"It is because of them that I stand before you as first lady of the United States of America," she said to applause from about 1,000 people gathered in the church for her speech, which was broadcast nationally and shown on jumbo screens for an overflow crowd in a nearby park.

"That is the legacy of the independence generation, the freedom generation. And all of you, the young people of this continent, you are the heirs of that blood, sweat, sacrifice and love. So the question today is, what will you make of that inheritance?"

More than 70 young women leaders from across the African continent were brought to Soweto to hear the speech and meet Obama.

"You can be the generation that ends HIV/AIDS in our time, the generation that fights not just the disease, but the stigma of the disease, the generation that teaches the world that HIV is fully preventable, and treatable, and should never be a source of shame," Obama told them.

Her speech drew a timeline from the anti-apartheid struggle to modern times, urging young Africans to take a stand in their own neighbourhoods against corruption, poverty and violence against women.

Soweto is often held up as a sign of the change in South Africa since Mandela won the country's first all-race elections in 1994, but also of the challenges that remain.

Paved roads, electricity and running water are widely available, and shopping malls, hotels and tour groups now mark neighbourhoods once synonymous with political violence.

But while mansions have sprung up and property values skyrocketed, shantytowns remain in the most visible sign of the chasm between rich and poor South Africans.

The speech was the first public remarks by Obama since arriving in South Africa late Monday on a tour that will also take her to neighbouring Botswana.

On Tuesday, the first lady, her mother and her two daughters paid tribute to the legacy of Nelson Mandela, getting a rare meeting with the increasingly frail 92-year-old liberation leader at his home.

Mandela's legacy defines much of her weeklong tour. His image towers from paintings and stained-glass windows at Regina Mundi, still scarred by bullet holes from a siege by apartheid police during the 1976 Soweto uprising.

After the church, Obama visited a memorial to Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old boy killed during the student uprising in protest at apartheid education policies.

She joined Pieterson's sister, Antoinette Sithole, in laying a bouquet of white flowers at the memorial, observing a moment of silence before entering the adjoining museum.

Outside, small children from a nearby day care sang "Mrs Obama, there is no one like you" in Sotho and greeted her with homemade signs that read: "We love you Mrs Obama" and "Welcome to South Africa".

Obama also planned to meet the young women leaders brought to Soweto from around the continent to discuss their efforts in projects that range from fighting corruption to caring for AIDS orphans.

On Thursday she planned to visit Robben Island, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison, and meet Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu in Cape Town, before heading to neighbouring Botswana for a safari on Saturday.

© 2011 AFP

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