Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the Connecting Continents Event in Johannesburg, South Africa

June 29, 2013

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you so much. It is such a pleasure to be here today for this conversation with young people here in South Africa and across America. Let me tell you, I am so excited to listen to you and learn from you. And I'm especially excited for all of you to learn from each other.

But before we begin, I have to just take a moment to say that our thoughts and prayers are very much with President Mandela, and we will continue to hold him and his family in our hearts.

Now, I want to start by thanking Sizwe for that very kind introduction and for moderating today's discussion. I'm thrilled that he could be part of this event, and it's wonderful to meet you.

But most of all, I want to thank all of you for joining us here in South Africa and from across the United States of America. As you know, my husband has come here to Africa this week to meet with leaders across this continent about some of the most important issues we face -- from ending poverty and hunger, to curing disease, to creating jobs in our global economy.

And that's really why I wanted to meet with young people like all of you today. Because all of you are such a vital part of that very conversation, because in the coming years, all of you will be building the businesses, you'll be making the discoveries and drafting the laws and policies that will move our countries and our world forward for decades to come.

So now, more than ever before, we need you guys to step up as leaders. We need you to be engaged in the pressing challenges of our time -- truly. Because the fact is that both here in South Africa and in the United States, our journeys have always been led by young people just like you.

Think back to the histories of our two countries -- the anti-Apartheid movement here in South Africa is a perfect example. Decades ago, under a set of laws called Apartheid, people of different races were separated in just about every aspect of their lives -- from the neighborhoods where they lived to the beaches where they swam, black students and white students even had to attend separate schools, and the schools for black students were generally much worse.

Now, over time, understandably, young people grew more and more frustrated with this kind of segregation and inequality. And 37 years ago this month, a group of students right here in Johannesburg in a township called Soweto --


MRS. OBAMA: -- yes, indeed -- (laughter) -- planned a peaceful march. They were protesting a new law requiring their classes to be taught in Afrikaans, a language which neither they nor many of their teachers spoke. Thousands of young people took to the streets, and before long the police arrived, firing tear gas and bullets.

Many people were killed, including children as young as 13 years old. Folks all across South Africa were inspired by those students, and more and more people started speaking out against Apartheid, insisting that everyone in South Africa be treated equally no matter what the color of their skin.

Now, young people played a similar role in the history of my country, the United States. Back in the 1950s and 60s, thousands of students led marches and protests against unfair laws that said that black people and white people had to attend separate schools, drink from separate water fountains, and that black people had to sit at the back of public buses. And when those laws were finally struck down, a small number of black children began attending the all-white schools, including nine young men and women who became the very first black students at an all-white school in Little Rock, Arkansas.

These teenagers became known as the Little Rock Nine. And when these nine young people showed up for their first day of class in September of 1957, they were met by an angry mob of people who didn't think that black children and white children should go to school together. The President at the time actually had to call in the military to protect these students. And for months, the Little Rock Nine endured relentless abuse and discrimination from their classmates and their teachers.

But here's the thing -- they kept on showing up every day, paving the way for generations of young people to get the education they deserve. See, those students in Little Rock and in Soweto were the exact same ages as many of you. They came from families just like many of yours. Their parents were maids and janitors and factory workers.

So they weren't rich, and they certainly weren't powerful. But these young people decided to face down bullets and beatings and abuse because they desperately wanted an education worthy of their potential. They wanted the same things that so many of you want today –- they wanted a good education, they wanted to go to college, they wanted to get good jobs, they wanted to provide for families of their own. And by taking a stand to change the course of their own lives, they changed the course of history.

And today, all these years later, so many of us are still benefitting from the sacrifices they made. I know that I stand here today as First Lady of the United States of America -- and my husband is President -- because of those nine young men and women in Little Rock, Arkansas.

So many of you here in South Africa have opportunities that your parents and grandparents never ever imagined for themselves. But as we go about our lives today, it's so easy to take all of that progress for granted, so easy to get caught up in all the distractions that surround us –- what's happening on those reality TV shows, who's throwing the best party, who's invited, who isn't.

I also know that many of you face real challenges in your lives. Maybe your mom has lost her job, maybe your dad's not around. Maybe your school isn't as good as it should be. Maybe you have folks in your life who doubt that you have what it takes to succeed, who tell you that you're not good enough or smart enough to achieve your dreams. And let me tell you, I know a little bit about that, because that's what happened to me.

See, when I was growing up, my family didn't have much money. Neither of my parents had the chance to go to college. And let me tell you, there were plenty of people who doubted whether a girl with my background had what it took to succeed. Plenty of folks urged me not to hope for too much, not to set my sights too high.

See, but here's the thing -- I made a choice. I decided not to listen to the doubters and the haters. Instead, I decided to prove them wrong.

So here's what I did -- I poured myself into my education. I woke up early to study. I stayed up late doing my homework. And I made sure I had the grades I needed to get in the universities that I dreamed of attending. And I kept on working until I got my law degree from one of the best universities in my country. And let me tell you, those degrees were my ticket to all kinds of exciting opportunities -- jobs that let me pursue my passions and provide for my family, and give back to my community and my country.

So here's what I learned from my own life experiences: You might not control what family you come from. You might not control what school you go to or how other people treat you. But you can control whether you do your homework each night. You can control whether you go to school every morning. You can control whether you spend your free time hanging out on the streets, partying, playing video games, or instead, invest that energy in achieving academic excellence by studying for those exams and spending time in the library filling your minds with knowledge.

Now, your friends might not always support those choices. You might get teased or bullied or ridiculed for choosing to focus on your education. But like my mother, who is here, always told me, she said, it isn't what people call you that matters, it's what you answer to.

So you can choose to answer to the peer pressure and just go along with what everyone else is doing, or you can answer to your own hopes and dreams, and start working to become whatever you want to be in this life.

That's what Siya Xuza did. He grew up in the township of Mthatha, and his family certainly wasn't wealthy. But he studied hard in school, and as a teenager, he invented his own rocket fuel and won all kinds of awards. And I got to meet Siya in South Africa two years ago, and I got to see him again today, and he just graduated from Harvard University in the United States where he's been developing new energy technologies to power Africa and save our planet.

And then there's this other guy I know from the U.S. He was the son of a single mother whose father left his family when he was just two years old. And as a teenager, he didn't always make the best decisions. But then he got serious about his schoolwork. He went to college and law school, became a civil rights lawyer, and a professor and a politician. And today, you might know that guy as my husband, Barack Obama, the President of the United States.

You see, Siya and President Obama and so many others in South Africa and the United States, they are living proof of what the legendary South African President, Nelson Mandela, once said. Mandela said, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."

Now, getting a good education won't always be easy. I know no matter how hard you try, let me tell you, you are going to make some mistakes -- you're going to make a lot of mistakes. You'll still have times when you feel lost and like no one understands what you're going through.

But I want you to remember this: No one is born a rocket scientist. No one is born as President of the United States or of South Africa. No one is born being smart or successful. You become smart and successful through hard work –- by doing those math problems, writing those papers; by getting things wrong, and then trying and trying again until you finally get them right.

And if you get discouraged, if you ever think about giving up, I want you to think about those students in Little Rock and Soweto. I want you to think about all the people throughout history who sacrificed so much for all of us.

I want you to think of Carlotta Walls. She was one of the Little Rock Nine, who said -- she said that no matter how bad things got -- and this was a quote -- she said, "I was not going to give up, because that way, they would've won, and I wasn't about to let that happen."

I want you to think about President Mandela, and how even though he spent 27 years of his life in prison, he never gave up on his dream of a more fair and equal and free South Africa.

So here's what I tell myself -- if President Mandela can endure being confined to a tiny cell, being forced to perform back-breaking labor, being separated from the people he loved most in the world, then surely, I and all of you can show up for school every day and do your homework every night. If President Mandela can hold tight to his vision for this country's future during all those years he faced in jail, then surely, you can hold on to your hopes for your own future; surely you can do everything in your power to seize the opportunities that he fought for.

That's how I try to live my own life –- by honoring all those who sacrificed so much for me, from my dad all the way up to heroes like Madiba. Every day, I do my best to make my life worthy of their sacrifice.

And you all have everything you need, right now, to do the same in your own lives. You have everything. You have a brain in your head. You have passion in your heart. And I know that if you're willing to work for it and fight for it, you can be anything that you dream of.

So today, I want to ask you all just to think about what barriers will you break down? What legacy will you leave for the next generation? Will you study the science so that you can cure cancer and AIDS and save our environment? Are you going to study politics so that you can end poverty and violence and build good schools for every child in your country? Will you study law so you can endure and ensure that decades from now, no one ever has to face discrimination because of what they look like or where they come from or who they love?

The answers to these questions are up to you. And that's what we're going to talk about today. We're going to talk about how you all can use your education to make history and build a better future in the years ahead.

Know this: I'm already proud of you. Know this: The President is already proud of you. The next step is yours.

So I'm going to turn it back over to Sizwe so that we can get this conversation started. How about it? You all ready? (Applause.) All right.

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the Connecting Continents Event in Johannesburg, South Africa Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320127

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