Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Michelle Obama: when it comes to the challenges we face, we simply don't have time to sit back and wait.


It has been more than three decades, but those bullet holes in the ceiling, this broken altar still stand as vivid reminders of the history that unfolded here at Regina Mundi Church in Soweto, South Africa.

You all know the story – how 35 years ago this month, a group of students planned a peaceful protest to express their outrage over a new law requiring them to take courses in Afrikaans. Thousands of them took to the streets, intending to march to Orlando Stadium.

But when security forces opened fire, some fled here to this church. The police followed, first with tear gas, and then with bullets. While no one was killed within this sanctuary, hundreds lost their lives that day, including a boy named Hector Pieterson, who was just 12 years old, and Hastings Ndlovu, who was just 15.

Many of the students hadn't even known about the protest when they arrived at school that morning. But they agreed to take part, knowing full well the dangers involved, because they were determined to get an education worthy of their potential.

That June day wasn't the first, or the last, time that Regina Mundi Church stood in the crosscurrents of history. It was referred to as "the parliament of Soweto." When the congregation sang their hymns, activists would make plans, singing the locations and times of secret meetings. Church services, and even funerals, often became anti-Apartheid rallies. As President Mandela once put it, "Regina Mundi became a world-wide symbol of the determination of our people to free themselves."

It is a story that has unfolded across this country and across this continent, and also in my country — the story of young people 20 years ago, 50 years ago, who marched until their feet were raw, who endured beatings and bullets and decades behind bars, who risked, and sacrificed, everything they had for the freedom they deserved.

It is because of them that we are able to gather here today. It is because of them that so many young women leaders can now pursue their dreams. It is because of them that I stand before you as First Lady of the United States of America. That is the legacy of the independence generation, the freedom generation. And all of you – the young people of this continent – you are the heirs of that blood, sweat, sacrifice, and love.

What will you make of that inheritance? What legacy will you leave for your children and your grandchildren? What generation will you be? I could ask these questions of young people in any country, on any continent. But there is a reason why I wanted to come here to South Africa.

As my husband has said, Africa is a fundamental part of our interconnected world. When it comes to the defining challenges of our times – creating jobs in our global economy, promoting democracy and development, confronting climate change, extremism, poverty and disease — for all this, the world is looking to Africa as a vital partner.

That is why my husband's administration is not simply focused on extending a helping hand to Africa, but focusing on partnering with Africans who will shape their future by combating corruption, and building strong democratic institutions, by growing new crops, caring for the sick. And more than ever before, we will be looking to our young people to lead the way.
In Africa, people under 25 make up 60 percent of the population. In South Africa, nearly two-thirds of citizens are under the age of 30. So over the next 20 years, the next 50 years, our future will be shaped by your leadership.

I want to pause for a moment on that word – leadership — because I know that so often, when we think about what that word means, what it means to be a leader, we think of presidents and prime ministers. We think of people who pass laws or command armies, run big businesses, people with fancy titles, big salaries. And most young people don't fit that image.

But when it comes to the challenges we face, we simply don't have time to sit back and wait. 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.

Think about what happened in Soweto 35 years ago. Many of the students who led the uprising were young. They carried signs made of cardboard boxes and canvass sacks. Yet together, they propelled this cause into the consciousness of the world. We now celebrate National Youth Day and National Youth Month every year in their honor.

Think about the giants of the struggle – people like Albertina Sisulu, whose recent passing we all mourn. Orphaned as a teenager, she worked as a nurse to support her siblings. When her husband, Walter Sisulu, became Secretary-General of the ANC, it was up to her to provide for their family. When he was imprisoned for 26 years, it was up to her to continue his work. And that she did. With a mother's fierce love for this country, she threw herself into the struggle.

She led boycotts and sit-ins and marches, including the 1956 Women's March, when thousands of women from across this country, converged on Pretoria to protest the pass laws. They were women of every color, many of them not much older than all of you. Some of them carried their babies on their backs. And for 30 minutes, they stood in complete silence, raising their voices only to sing freedom songs like Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica. Their motto was simple, but clear: "If you strike a woman, you strike a rock."

Ma Sisulu, the students of Soweto, those women in Pretoria, they had little money, even less status, no fancy titles to speak of. But what they had was their vision for a free South Africa. What they had was an unshakeable belief that they were worthy of that freedom –- and they had the courage to act on that belief. Each of them chose to be a rock for justice. With countless acts of daring and defiance, together, they transformed this nation.

Together they paved the way for free and fair elections, for a process of healing and reconciliation, and for the rise of South Africa as a political and economic leader on the world stage.

While today's challenges might not always inspire the lofty rhetoric or the high drama of struggles past, the injustices at hand are no less glaring, the human suffering no less acute. There are still so many causes worth sacrificing for. There is still so much history yet to be made.

[Young people] can be the generation that makes the discoveries and builds the industries that will transform our economies; the generation that brings opportunity and prosperity to forgotten corners of the world and banishes hunger from this continent forever; the generation that ends HIV/AIDS in our time; the generation that fights not just the disease, but the stigma of the disease and the generation that teaches the world that HIV is fully preventable, and treatable, and should never be a source of shame.

[Young people] can be the generation that holds leaders accountable for open, honest government at every level, government that stamps out corruption and protects the rights of every citizen to speak freely, to worship openly, to love whomever they choose; the generation to ensure that women are no longer second-class citizens, that girls take their rightful places in our schools and the generation that stands up and says that violence against women in any form, in any place — including the home – especially the home –that isn't just a women's rights violation. It's a human rights violation. And it has no place in any society.

Your efforts might not always draw the world's attention. The change may come slowly, little by little, measured not by sweeping changes in the law, but by daily improvements in people's lives. But I can tell you from my own experience – and from my husband's experience – that this work is no less meaningful, no less inspiring, and no less urgent than what you read about in the history books.

[People of conscience cannot be content with their own comfort and success when they know that other people are struggling.] As my husband often says, if any child goes hungry, that matters to me, even if she's not my child. If any family is devastated by disease, then I cannot be content with my own good health. If anyone is persecuted because of how they look, or what they believe, then that diminishes my freedom and threatens my rights as well. In the end, that sense of interconnectedness, that depth of compassion, that determination to act in the face of impossible odds, those are the qualities of mind and heart that I hope will define your generation.

As one of our great American presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, liked to say, I hope that you will commit yourselves to doing "what you can, with what you've got, where you are," because in the end, that is what makes you a lion. Not fortune, not fame, not your pictures in history books, but the refusal to remain a bystander when others are suffering, and that commitment to serve however you can, where you are.

Now it will not be easy. You will have failures and setbacks and critics and plenty of moments of frustration and doubt. You may not always have a comfortable life. You will not always be able to solve all the world's problems at once. But don't ever underestimate the impact you can have, because history has shown us that courage can be contagious, and hope can take on a life of its own.

It's what happens when folks start asking questions — a father asks, "Why should my son go to school, but not my daughter?" Or a mother asks, "Why should I pay a bribe to start a business to support my family?" Or a student stands up and declares, "Yes, I have HIV, and here's how I'm treating it, and here's how we can stop it from spreading."

Soon, they inspire others to start asking questions. They inspire others to start stepping forward. Those are the "ripples of hope" that a young U.S. senator named Robert Kennedy spoke of when he came here to South Africa 45 years ago this month. In his words, he said, the "numberless diverse acts of courage and belief which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

That is how a church can become a parliament. That is how a hymn can be a call to action. That is how a group of young people with nothing more than some handmade signs and a belief in their own God-given potential can galvanize a nation. That's how young people around the world can inspire each other, and draw strength from each other.

I'm thinking today of the young activists who gathered at the American Library here in Soweto to read the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King for their inspiration. I'm thinking of how Dr. King drew inspiration from Chief Luthuli and the young people here in South Africa. I'm thinking about how young South Africans singing the American civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" in the streets of Cape Town and Durban. I'm thinking of how Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica echoed through university campuses in the U.S., as students – including my husband –planned boycotts to support students here in South Africa. I'm thinking of this church and how those stained windows depicting the struggle were donated by the people of Poland, and how the peace pole in the park outside was donated by people from Japan, and how every week, visitors from every corner of the globe come here to bear witness and draw inspiration from your history.

Finally, I'm thinking of the history of my own country. I mean, America won its independence more than two centuries ago. It has been nearly 50 years since the victories of our own civil rights movement. Yet we still struggle every day to perfect our union and live up to our ideals. Every day, it is our young people who are leading the way. They are the ones enlisting in our military. They're the ones teaching in struggling schools, volunteering countless hours in countless ways in communities.

In this past presidential election, they were engaged in our democracy like never before. They studied the issues, followed the campaign, knocked on doors in the freezing snow and the blazing sun, urging people to vote. They waited in line for hours to cast their ballots.

I have seen that same passion, that same determination to serve in young people I have met all across the world. If anyone of you ever doubts that you can build that future, 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!"


US First Lady Mitchel Obama's speech on her recent tour to South Africa.

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