To avoid traffic, I took the Pretoria-Johannesburg western bypass yesterday. Within 50 minutes — at exactly 6.25am to be precise — I joined the snake-like queue rapidly growing in front of the historic Regina Mundi Church in Soweto. It was bitterly cold — about 2°C. I didn’t care. There was warmth in the mood and my companions in the queue were boisterous and patient. Proudly I whipped out my ID and invitation for examination at the accreditation desk. When the lady there horribly mispronounced my name in a heavy southern American accent I smiled helpfully. Further on, at the security cubicle, I gladly offered my body to be searched and searched thoroughly.
Three hours and 45 minutes later US First Lady Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama walked up to the podium and sent the crowd into a frenzy. At that moment I realised I preferred the fact that she and not her husband had come to my country. I also didn’t mind that the president of my own country was nowhere to be seen.
A moment earlier Graça Machel had introduced Michelle with such grace and finesse. She said, among other things, that Michelle was “a daughter of African heritage”, “the queen of our world’, “an inspiration”, one who “stands shoulder to shoulder with Barack Obama”, one who “redefines womanhood in the 21st century”, “one of the most powerful women in the world” who nevertheless “remains accessible”, “powerful without being aloof, powerful without being aggressive” and “one of the most inspiring leaders of the world today”. I was struck by the authenticity with which Graça showered these accolades. Hers was not the voice of duty, protocol or officialdom. It felt genuine. I loved this departure from the tendency in some quarters to portray Michelle merely and mainly as a fashion icon. Here was an introduction which spoke of her character, her political acumen, the global impact of her leadership and stunning beauty. Graça painted a complex rather than simplistic picture of Michelle. She spoke of a feminist thinker and practitioner, the wife of Barack Obama, mother of Malia and Sasha, community activist, daughter of Marian Robinson, community servant and intellectual.
Here she was, the US first lady — 10m from where I sat. Here was this woman, born of working-class parents and apparently raised in a one-bedroom apartment. Here was this woman whose parents sacrificed so much to pay for her and her brother’s education. Here she was, in Soweto, paying homage to the 1976 generation and to Regina Mundi. She praised the “independence generation”, “freedom generation” and the struggle inheritance they left.
“The question today is, what will you make of that inheritance? What legacy will you leave for your children and your grandchildren? What generation will you be?” she asked her audience with a rhetorical nimbleness we have come to associate with her husband.
She spoke of Africa and Africa’s place in the world today. “When it comes to the defining challenges of times, creating jobs in our global economy, promoting democracy and development, confronting climate change, extremism, poverty and disease, for all these, the world is looking to Africa as a vital partner.” Her audience was jolted, bewitched and awed, all at once. She had a message for Africa’s youth, which constitutes 60% of the continent’s population. “We are looking to you to lead the way,” she said.
She debunked the popular belief that leadership is about being president, prime minister, army general, parliamentarian or having a fancy title. Young people should not take heed of those who discourage them by telling them to wait their turn, she said. What, according to Michelle, is leadership?
“True leadership, leadership that lifts families, leadership that sustains communities and transforms nations, that kind of leadership rarely starts in palaces or parliaments. That kind of leadership is not limited only to those of a certain age or status. That kind of leadership is not just about dramatic events that change the course of history in an instant. Instead, true leadership often happens with the smallest acts, in the most unexpected places, by the most unlikely individuals.”
The best definition of leadership I’ve read in a long time.
But that is not all. Consider the gauntlet she threw at the youth of Africa and the world in her speech.
“There are still so many causes worth sacrificing for. There is still so much history yet to be made. You can be the generation that makes the discoveries and build the industries that will transform our economy. You can be the generation that brings opportunity and prosperity to forgotten corners of the world, the generation that banishes hunger from this continent forever. You can be the generation that ends HIV/Aids in our times. 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. You can be the generation that holds your leaders accountable for open, honest government at every level … you can be the generation to ensure that women are no longer second-class citizens, that girls take their rightful places in our schools. You can be the generation that stands up and says that violence against women in any form, in any place, including the home, especially the home, that it is not just a woman’s rights violation but a human-rights violation and has no place in society. That is the history that your generation can make.”
With the phrase “as my husband says” or “in mine and my husband’s experience” she interrupted herself with monotonous regularity. There was no shyness about the fact that she regards her husband’s mission as hers also. There was not a hint of apology for promoting her husband, who he is, where he comes from and where he is going. She revelled in telling the story of how she quit a high-powered and high-paying job as a lawyer to work alongside her husband in the apparently lowly jobs of serving the community in the south side of Chicago.
Is she a saint? I doubt. She does not need to be one. Towards the end of her speech her voice was breaking. At that point I worried that she would break down and cry. Several members of the audience, myself included, might have all cried in solidarity with her, in sheer joy. Is her husband the best US president ever? I don’t think so but time will tell, I suppose. I do think he should return the Noble Peace Prize. His chances of a second term depend, in my view, very much on the value Americans will still attach to the killing of Osama bin Laden by the time of the next election. What a pity. Little he does or does not do will alter the great historical and inspirational significance of his election. This is not to a take away from his considerable talents or tremendous belief in the US — the two critical factors that propelled him into the White House. Is the US the most inspiring and exemplary country in the world today? I don’t think so. All I want to say is this. From what I have read of Michelle, and after listening to her in Soweto on June 22 2011, she is an awesome speaker, an inspiring personality and a phenomenal woman.