Michelle Obama meets Mandela in tribute to his legacy

Posted at 06/22/11 2:12 AM

JOHANNESBURG - First Lady Michelle Obama called on Nelson Mandela at his home Tuesday, in a rare visit with the ageing icon whose legacy in the fight against apartheid frames her tour of South Africa.

The meeting with the 92-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner was discreetly arranged after Obama and her daughters visited archives chronicling some of his 27 years as a political prisoner.

At the Mandela Foundation, his wife Graca Machel guided Obama, her mother, and her daughters Malia and Sasha through an exhibit of his personal photographs and journals, in which he meticulously drafted letters but also kept more mundane notes on his weight and daily routine.

"After leaving here, she proceeded to make a brief courtesy call on former president Mandela," said Achmat Dangor, the head of the foundation, calling the first lady "a lovely woman without any airs".

Their visit added to the symbolism surrounding Obama's journey, with America's first black family in the White House meeting South Africa's first black president.

President Barack Obama has called the anti-apartheid struggle his first political cause, and US officials say he has had periodic telephone contact with Mandela, who led the struggle against white-minority rule.

The two men met in 2005 when then senator Obama toured Africa. A simple cell-phone picture of that meeting is now in Mandela's office, aides to the first lady said.

Mandela welcomed her entire family into his home, including a niece and nephew travelling with them.

Such visits are increasingly rare. Mandela, who turns 93 next month, has received few guests since he was hospitalised with an acute respiratory infection in January.

After leaving his home in the leafy Houghton neighbourhood, they travelled to a Johannesburg day care centre where brought books and read "The Cat in the Hat" to the children.

"So we brought a gift. We brought you lots of books, some of my favourite books, some of the president's favorite books, some of Malia and Sasha's favorite books.

But Mandela's legacy in the battle for South African democracy defines much of Obama's visit.

Her next stop was to the Apartheid Museum, which chronicles the rise and fall of white rule.

She was set Wednesday to visit the memorial for Hector Pieterson -- a 12-year-old boy killed during the anti-apartheid Soweto uprising in 1976.

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.

On Wednesday Obama will also give the keynote address at a conference of the Young African Women Leaders Forum, a two-day meeting of young women who are playing leadership roles across the continent.

Earlier Tuesday, Obama met briefly with one of President Jacob Zuma's three wives, Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma, and a group of some 100 invitees in Pretoria.

"Michelle Obama certainly convinced the dignitaries she is excited to be here, and said her husband is 'pouty' that he isn't," Nic Dawes, editor of the weekly Mail & Guardian tweeted after meeting her.

US officials are describing the trip as her first major solo overseas trip as first lady.

The visit is her second official trip to sub-Saharan Africa, after a 24-hour stop in Ghana with her husband in 2009.

Obama made her first solo trip as first lady last year, stopping briefly in Haiti before continuing on to Mexico for a three-day visit.