24 June 2011
US First Lady Michelle Obama on Thursday praised South Africans who had grown up under apartheid, overcome the oppressive system, and built a country based on equality that had become a role model for the rest of the world.
Speaking at Fuller Hall at the University of Cape Town (UCT) to pupils from five schools across the city, Obama said people of the world were looking to South Africa to become a world leader, and that many Americans were behind the country.
“No matter what part of the world you come from, you can have an impact,” she told the pupils, pointing out that South Africa was the continent’s leading economy and had last year hosted a successful World Cup.
She pointed to former president Nelson Mandela, who had in his lifetime seen what he had been fighting for all his life come to fruition.
Obama also said the thoughts and prayers of her and her family were with the family of struggle veteran Kader Asmal, following his passing on Wednesday.
She praised former UCT vice-chancellor Rampele Mamphele, who acted as a moderator during question-and-answer time from pupils.
Mamphele, she said, was a “true role model” who had overcome racial discrimination during apartheid, becoming a doctor and collecting degrees, fellowships and awards from some of the most prestigious universities in the world.
‘It takes hard work – and vision’
Obama said through hard work the youth of today could achieve their dreams.
“There is no magic dust that helps students achieve at a place like this, nowadays it is more how hard you can work and, more importantly, it’s about believing in yourself every step of the way.”
She said even after getting accepted at a top school, despite her disadvantaged background, she still had doubts she could succeed, until she began seeing that she was performing just as well as others.
“I realised then that success isn’t about how much money you have or where you come from, but how hard you work,” she said.
A good education was the only route to true success, as was the ability to be able to envision one’s dreams, she added.
“The one thing I always say is that you have to practice success, it doesn’t just show up,” she said, adding that pupils needed to begin practicing early on, habits that built success.
She said her highest priority when she travelled around the world was to meet with young people, and she came away inspired when speaking to young pupils.
‘Realise what’s possible’
It was why she had organised to have the pupils come to UCT, because she wanted them to have the chance to walk around the university’s campus and meet professors and students to realise they could fit in there too.
She said children rose to the bar that they were given, and wouldn’t be able to aim high if they were never shown what was possible, including being able to visit universities like UCT.
In answers to questions raised by pupils, Obama said her mother – in her first trip to Africa – had been the perfect role model who had given her unconditional support and love.
“As you get older, remember that the family you build can be the greatest contribution you make to the world, so never shirk on that responsibility,” Obama said.
Obama said the relationship between South Africa and the US was strong, pointing out that more and more students were travelling to one another’s countries to study, adding that travelling was a good way to “expand one’s horizons”.
Started by turning Barack down
She said she felt “deep, deep responsibility” for being the first black American First Lady: “I was actually trying to talk my husband out of office, but now that we’re here I want to make the most of it,” she said.
She said when her husband had first asked her out on a date, she had turned him down, because they were working in the same law firm together and she had thought it a “bit strange” that they go out.
But she said she had later agreed to go out with him when she saw the kinds of values he had.
“He was a community organiser and had a real passion for change, and he added something to my life,” she said.
She advised the pupils to ensure that whoever they decided to be with romantically, added value to their lives.