MSNBC – JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – When Lebo Mothae speaks about the United States of America, she smiles brightly. “If I could go to America that would be my dream – just to be there!”
Mothae’s only contact with American people is when she encounters the crowds of tourists that she must cut through to walk her 4-year-old son from home to a nursery school close to Vilakazi Street in Soweto, the South African township. The area is popular with visitors because it is the street where former President Nelson Mandela once lived and former Archbishop Desmond Tutu still has a home.
To Mothae, a 32-year-old nursery school teacher, the United States represents a beacon of relative racial harmony.
The U.S. and South Africa share a dark racial past, but South Africa’s is much more recent – white minority rule by the apartheid regime ended when Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and became president in 1994 after the country’s first democratic elections.
And although Mothae questioned her belief in the American people during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the election of an African-American president in the U.S. renewed her hopes for racial equality at home and abroad.
“That election made me feel so warm about the American people,” she said.
Her faith in all things American was enhanced when first lady Michelle Obama visited South Africa last year, a trip that included a visit to Soweto.
“She’s a darling,” Mothae said. “I remember the day and the time that she came to this side [South Africa]. She’s a nice lady. She’s quite down-to-earth. I like her.
“I see a mother – a caring person. She’s devoted to what she’s doing. She is an icon for all black women in America, in South Africa and around the world.”
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