South Africa: Oprah to the rescue?

Author:Commey, Pusch
Position:Oprah Winfrey's services - Girl education

A hugely significant event happened in South Africa at the beginning of the New Year that should point the way forward. It began with a dream. The African-American billionaire and talk-show host, Oprah Winfrey, dreamt of top quality education for intelligent African girls whose dream would otherwise die because of poverty. Oprah's own difficult childhood embroiled in poverty was a point of reference. She dreamt the detail right up to how her pupils would look, and brought into reality the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, which opened on 2 January 2007. But what does that say about the state of education, and by extension the economic and social wellbeing, in South Africa 13 years into black majority rule? Pusch Commey reports from Johannesburg.


"I wanted to give this opportunity to girls who had a light so bright that not even poverty could dim that light," Oprah Winfrey said on 2 January 2007 when she opened the school that cost $40m (her personal money) to build at Henley-on-Klip, south of Johannesburg. "I was a poor girl who grew up with my grandmother, like so many of these girls, with no water and electricity. But I am grateful that at least I had a good education, the most vital aspect of my life ... When I first started making a lot of money, I really became frustrated with the fact that all I did was write cheque after cheque to this or that charity without really feeling like it was a part of me. At a certain point, you want to feel that connection ... I believe that one of the world's most important resources is its young people, and I believe education gives young people a greater voice in their own lives, and helps them to create a brighter future for themselves and their communities."



The school has 28 buildings across a 20-hectare (50-acre) site, with high-tech classrooms, computers and science laboratories. Oprah has promised to make the academy the "best school in the world". Over 3,500 girls (aged between 11 and 13 from families whose income is less than $700 a month) applied for the 152 places in the school. Overwhelmingly black, the school population includes other racial groups as well.


Oprah was personally involved in the selection process when the applicants were shortlisted to 500. She has committed funds to the school for at least 100 years. To illustrate what Oprah's dream means for Africa, the ceremony was attended by celebrated Africans from all over the world, including Andrew Young, Tina Turner, Nelson Mandela, Waangari Maathai, Maria Carey, Baby Face and Quincy Jones.

The school was built at the request of Nelson Mandela who has spared no effort to use his influence to convince corporations to build schools. Many have complied. He said at the opening ceremony: "I know that this academy will change the trajectory of these girls' lives. The key to any country's future is in educating its youth." He turned to Oprah and, with a huge smile on his face, said: "This is a lady who has, despite her own disadvantaged background, become one of the benefactors of the disadvantaged throughout the world."

Oprah's school identifies a crucial need for leadership in the battle against African poverty. It hopes to develop leaders who think critically for the future. She said: "I wasn't trying to make a school that would develop political leaders. I am looking for the opportunity to change the paradigm, to change the way not only how these girls think but to also change the way a culture feels about what African women can do." Plans are almost complete for a similar school for boys and girls in the Kwazulu-Natal province of South Africa.

Oprah appeared to sum up South Africa (and by extension the whole continent of Africa) in that one sentence: "I am looking for the opportunity to change the paradigm, to change the way not only how these girls think, but to also change the way a culture feels about what African women [and men] can do." But would this be the start of a revolution to reclaim the African consciousness?

"As a man thinketh, so he...

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