On June 22, 2011, I walked into the Regina Mundi church in Soweto, after having been searched like a criminal by the American Secret Service, to find myself among thousands who had gathered to hear an address by the US First Lady, Michelle Obama. How lucky was I? Well, I was one of 2 000 “invitations only” guests at the church, that’s how lucky I was!
Hosted by the American Embassy, the US Ambassador to South Africa, Donald Gips, and his wife Elizabeth, Obama addressed the guests, including members of the Young African Women Leaders’ Forum, on issue of building a solid leadership mindset on the continent.
The area behind the church pulpit was decorated with flowers that stood on pedestals, while the illuminated stained-glass windows on the left of the church depicted moments of South Africa’s liberation struggle. The atmosphere was tense with excitement as school children and invited guests waited in anticipation for the First Lady; I too was among the excited.
Slowly the choir rose and began to sing. They were wearing brightly-coloured, traditional Xhosa attire and danced rhythmically to their songs. The audience (myself included) began to sing along, giving the event a warm and welcoming South African feel. It was almost as if I was at my own church.
Graça Machel, wife of former South African president Nelson Mandela, delivered the most beautiful introduction that prefaced Obama’s speech. “We welcome you as a daughter of African heritage, and we can call you the queen of our world,” said Machel. I agree; Michelle Obama may definitely be the current queen of our world!
Finally, after applause and song, the moment of Obama’s much-anticipated speech had arrived. As she approached the stage, holding clasped hands to her chest while fighting back tears, one could see she was moved by her introduction and welcoming. “I want to start by thanking Graça Machel for that just gracious, kind introduction. It is overwhelming,” she said.
Her speech drew on the history of Regina Mundi, which means ”queen of the world” in Latin, paying tribute to leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the US, urging the young women in the audience to follow their example.
“The young people of this continent – you are the heirs of that blood, sweat, sacrifice and love,” she said.
At this point in time I was holding back tears.
Obama spoke out strongly in favour of women’s rights and called for education of women to help uplift them from their “second-class citizens” mentally. She also urged for the end of women abuse, saying that the issue “isn’t just a women’s rights violation – it’s a human rights violation”. Again, I could not agree more. She believes that this generation of young women leaders on the continent could also be the one that overcomes the difficulties associated with HIV/AIDS.
For 45 minutes Michelle Obama spoke with conviction, passion, elegance and grace that moved me and many other women to tears. Her speech was beautifully inspiring.
She concluded with the famous slogan from her husband’s 2008 campaign to inspire and urge young women to become proactive members of change for women empowerment in Africa. “If anyone ever tells you that you shouldn’t or you can’t, then I want you to say with one voice – the voice of a generation – you tell them, ‘yes, we can’,” she said.
Yes, I can too!
This concluded one of the most inspirationally-moving speeches I have ever heard, and after having had the opportunity to be a part of the event I realised how lucky I am to have been at a once-in-a-lifetime occasion that I would have not missed for the world.