JOHANNESBURG — Michelle Obama heard stories of South Africa’s racist past Tuesday from Nelson Mandela, the country’s first black president who was imprisoned for 27 years in his struggle against brutal apartheid rule.
Now 92 and largely retired from public life, Mandela sent word he wanted to meet with the first lady at his home while she was at his foundation viewing some of his personal papers.
The first lady was joined by her daughters, Malia, 12, and Sasha, 10, her mother, Marian Robinson, and Mrs. Obama’s niece and nephew, Leslie Robinson, 15, and Avery Robinson. Mandela was accompanied by his wife, Graca Machel, a former first lady of both South Africa and Mozambique.
The Obama family spent about 20 minutes with Mandela, who wore one of his trademark shirts, richly patterned and buttoned at the neck. A photo distributed by the Nelson Mandela Foundation showed a healthy-looking Mandela sitting on a couch next to Mrs. Obama. He held a pen and appeared ready to sign an advance copy of his new book, “Nelson Mandela By Himself: The Authorized Quotations Book.”
Mrs. Obama came to Africa partly to promote her own causes and partly because President Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, is unlikely to make another trip to his ancestral homeland before his term ends in a year and a half.
Rose Nkosi, 61, who sells fruit and snacks from a street stall in Johannesburg, said she “would love so much, so much” to see Obama himself. She said that, in South Africa and the U.S., “no one thought a black person can rule. But it’s happened.”
Wilkista Akinyi of Kenya, a 20-year-old who works with poor girls who recently graduated from high school, said she’s glad Michelle Obama came instead of her husband. Akinyi said she wants to encourage women to look to other women.
“Women don’t believe in fellow women leaders,” she said.
The first lady began her first full day in South Africa by calling on Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma, one of three wives of President Jacob Zuma, at his official residence in Pretoria. She also met there with Mandela’s wife.
After meeting with Mandela, Mrs. Obama and her family visited a daycare center in Zandspruit, a Johannesburg shantytown where people live in tin homes. A group of 3- to 6-year-olds welcomed their visitors with song. Mrs. Obama and her daughters then took turns reading one of the girls’ favorite books, Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat.”
They closed the day with a private tour of the Apartheid Museum. The museum opened in 2001 to tell South Africa’s 20th century story, including the rise and fall of apartheid, the now-abolished system of racial separation, in which Mandela, Zuma and many others played a role.
The White House says Obama’s decision not to go to Africa shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign that he doesn’t care about Africa’s issues or people.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, noted Obama’s involvement in the crises in Ivory Coast, Sudan and Libya. The president has also been interviewed by Kenyan and South African television, Rhodes said, and participated in a White House forum last year with young leaders from across sub-Saharan Africa.
Obama also welcomed two African presidents, Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan and Gabon’s Ali Bongo, to the Oval Office for meetings this month.
Officials point to a trip by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who just returned last week from Zambia, Tanzania and Ethiopia. In 2009, Clinton went on a much longer trip to Africa that included Kenya, South Africa, Angola, Congo, Nigeria, Liberia and Cape Verde.
Associated Press writer Donna Bryson contributed to this report.