Instead, he arranged for Corrective Services Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to greet her on her arrival in Pretoria on Monday night, and his wife, Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma, to meet her briefly on Tuesday.
Mrs Obama, her daughters Sasha and Malia and her mother Marian Robinson, were also granted a rare audience with 92-year-old former president Nelson Mandela at his Johannesburg home.
It was Mrs Obama’s first encounter with the global icon, although her husband Barack Obama met him when still a senator on a 2006 Africa tour. Mrs Obama’s aides revealed that a mobile phone photograph taken of that meeting now hangs in Mr Mandela’s office.
When Mrs Obama made her first solo trip, to Mexico, she was guest of honour at a state dinner hosted by President Calderón and his wife.
Her visit to South Africa is aimed at advancing her international youth engagement agenda as well as highlighting Mr Obama’s support for “democracy, development and economic opportunities across Africa”.
But it coincides with a cooling in relations between South Africa and the United States. Last week, President Jacob Zuma issued a sharp riposte to an appeal by Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, to African leaders to help remove Libya’s Col Muammar Gaddafi.
“We strongly believe that the (UN Security Council) resolution is being abused for regime change, political assassinations and foreign military occupation,” he told parliament the day after Mrs Clinton’s speech.
South African officials insisted that Mr Zuma was simply busy – and Mrs Obama had rejected the offer of a meeting at 9am on Wednesday because she was making a speech in Soweto.
Zizi Kodwa, Mr Zuma’s spokesman, refused to discuss the president’s appointments in the coming days, but said his diary was full and could not easily be changed.
“Even when the president is in South Africa, he is not on holiday and cannot meet anybody at any time,” he said. “Why is he not meeting the head of state of an African country who is coming to South Africa? Because he has a schedule.” Clayson Monyela, spokesman for South Africa’s foreign office, said that since Mrs Obama is not a head of state or cabinet minister, there was no onus on Mr Zuma to meet her.
“It’s totally wrong to suggest this is a snub,” he said. “If Mr Zuma or the International Relations minister were in the country they would have met her. We recognise this is a historic visit and that’s why she has been welcomed by senior cabinet ministers.” Professor Chris Landsberg, head of the University of Johannesburg’s politics department and a guest lecturer at the Diplomatic Academy of South Africa’s foreign office, said even if it was not a snub, it was a “missed opportunity”.
“There is no doubt there’s been some irritation on both sides over Libya and I would have expected them to meet if he was in the country,” he said. “It might perhaps have been a chance for Mrs Obama to pass some direct messages from her husband, clarify the position and ease some tensions.”