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In Soweto, Michelle Obama urges fight against modern ills

US First Lady Michelle Obama invoked the legacy of South Africa’s liberation struggle to urge young people to fight modern social ills, in a speech at a landmark church in Soweto.

Regina Mundi church was once a haven for activists fighting white-minority rule in the sprawling township in Johannesburg, and Obama harnessed their memory as well as 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 1,000 people gathered in the church, in a speech broadcast nationally.

“That is the legacy of the independence generation, the freedom generation. And all of you, the young people of today, are the heirs of this 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 continent were brought to Soweto to hear the speech and to meet with Obama, who was to spend the day visiting landmarks of the anti-apartheid struggle with her mother and her two daughters.

“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,” Obama said.

“You can be the generation that holds your leaders accountable for open, honest government at every level, government that stamps out corruption.”

Obama was greeted with cheers and applause as her motorcade arrived in Soweto, where jumbo screens were set up in a park near the church for an overflow crowd to hear her speech.

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

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

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

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

On Tuesday, she and her family paid tribute to the legacy of Nelson Mandela, receiving a rare meeting with the increasingly frail 92-year-old liberation leader at his home.

The image of them seated together was splashed across front pages Wednesday, with the Sowetan newspaper proclaiming “Obama mania hits SA”.

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

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

Outside the memorial, small children from a nearby day care sang “Mrs Obama, there is no one like you” in Sotho as they waited for her to arrive, carrying homemade signs that read: “We love you Mrs Obama” and “Welcome to South Africa”.

After paying her respects at the memorial, Obama planned to meet with the young women leaders brought here from around the continent to discuss their efforts in projects that ranged from fighting corruption to caring for AIDS orphans.

On Thursday she planned to see Mandela’s former prison at Robben Island and meet Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu in Cape Town, before heading to neighbouring Botswana for a safari on Saturday.