Michelle Obama’s Visit to South Africa: Empowering Youth through Quality Education

On June 22, First Lady Michelle Obama will deliver the keynote address for the Young African Women Leaders Forum in the Regina Mundi church in the township of Soweto, South Africa. The church was made most famous 35 years when students protesting the imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in local schools sought sanctuary there and were attacked by police firing live ammunition.

President Obama set forth his U.S.-Africa policy during his June 2009 trip to Accra, Ghana, which includes ensuring that young people in Africa “have the power to hold [their] leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people,” much like the students of Soweto. Continuing the administration’s Africa policy on this trip, the first lady is expected to focus on youth empowerment and shared responsibility, whereby young Africans have the power to take the future of their countries into their own hands. But what tools do African youth have to take on this challenge—and what is the U.S. role?

Education is essential to ensuring youth empowerment. While South Africa has essentially achieved universal access to primary education, the legacy of the apartheid system has created vast inequities in access to quality education and learning outcomes. Decades after the end of apartheid, unequal educational opportunities continue to impede equality in South Africa; the majority of South Africa’s grade 4 students have not acquired basic reading skills even after four years of primary schooling. In the regional assessment from 2007, over 60 percent of grade 6 students are reading below grade level, with at least 25 percent reading at grade 2 level or below. As a consequence, many young people in South Africa leave school ill-equipped to take on the first lady’s challenge.

What is most striking is the vast disparity in learning achievement by socioeconomic status and geographic location. While over 70 percent of grade 6 students from the wealthiest quartile were reading at grade 5 level or higher, fewer than 10 percent of students from the poorest quartile were reading at that level. Confronting this challenge head on, like the students in Soweto protesting apartheid’s impact on their education, are groups like Equal Education, whose young leaders are working to improve the quality of education for all.

The day of the student uprising in Soweto, June 16, 1976 is now known as National Youth Day in South Africa. The day commemorates the contributions that the country’s youth made in the struggle to end apartheid and to bring attention to their needs. As Mrs. Obama encourages young South Africans to reach their highest aspirations in their own societies and shape the destiny of South Africa, she too should bring something to the table. The first lady should use her position to encourage the U.S. and South African governments to meet their commitment to ensuring quality education from early childhood through post-primary for all children and youth. This would be a true partnership for youth empowerment.