Oprah Opens Leadership Academy in South Africa

After a six-year effort, talk-show host Oprah Winfrey has opened a school in South Africa. The $40 million leadership academy for poor girls drew a star-studded group to its campus for the grand opening.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's go next to South Africa, where one of the most powerful people in American entertainment wants to make a difference. Oprah Winfrey is investing some of her fortune in a country still recovering from apartheid, the old system of segregation. She is paying for a leadership academy for poor girls.

Here's NPR's Special Africa Correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

(Soundbite of song “I Feel Good”)

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Young South Africans helping set the “I Feel Good” tone of the day. The ribbon cutting marking the opening of Oprah Winfrey's Leadership Academy for Girls, a $40 million school Winfrey spent the last six years creating.

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY: This has been a long time coming. This is not just for me, you know, some small idea. This is a supreme moment of destiny for me. I've been coming to this day my entire life.

HUNTER-GAULT: Indeed, Winfrey took a page out of her own life's book as she created a school for girls like she once was.

Ms. WINFREY: Girls who were poor, who had come from disadvantaged circumstances, but girls who had a light so bright that not even poverty, disease, and life circumstances could dim that light.

HUNTER-GAULT: That light clearly shone bright enough for the 150 7th and 8th grade girls - some AIDS orphans - hand-picked by Winfrey out of a process that included some 3,000 applicants. And it opened up a world that few of them, or even Oprah, could have imagined.

Ms. WINFREY: I went to some of their homes. I've met with their teachers, I've met with their parents, I've met with them. I know them all by name. I know their stories because their story is my story. And what I do know for sure is that this school is going to change the trajectory of their lives.

HUNTER-GAULT: A trajectory with a foundation and Winfrey's hands-on attention to detail on the 50-acre campus with 28 buildings and with state-of-the-art everything, including a library with a fireplace and a beauty parlor.

Twelve-year-old Mizeka Cabinyani(ph), from the all-black and mostly poor Soweto Township, is one student who tells us what Winfrey's school means to her.

Ms. MIZEKA CABINYANI (Student, Leadership Academy for Girls): It means that I've got an opportunity to go out there and change the world - change my world, change my family's world.

HUNTER-GAULT: Another student, Bushli(ph), says she has no surname, but she does have the ambition to lead.

Ms. BUSHLI (Student, Leadership Academy for Girls): I want to be a president.

HUNTER-GAULT: A president?

Ms. BUSHLI: Yes.

HUNTER-GAULT: The president?

Ms. BUSHLI: Yes.

HUNTER-GAULT: Of this country?

Ms. BUSHLI: Yes.

HUNTER-GAULT: Why?

MS. BUSHLI: Because I believe that women can make a difference in life - and not in life, not in a country, but in the world.

HUNTER-GAULT: And 13-year-old Tandi Dromo(ph) says she gets her inspiration from Winfrey.

Ms. TANDI DROMO (Student, Leadership Academy for Girls): It makes us all feel happy to know that there is a person out there that knows life is not just about money, life is not just about the fame, but life is also about being a good person, being fair, knowing where you come from.

HUNTER-GAULT: But Tandi says, thanks to the Academy, she also knows where she is going.

Ms. DROMO: I am going straight for the future.

HUNTER-GAULT: A future promising free high school fees and college anywhere in the world, all at Winfrey's expense. Some have criticized the school for being too elitist and luxurious, but former South African President Nelson Mandela was among those hailing it as a welcome gift to help overcome the apartheid legacy.

President NELSON MANDELA: We share the (unintelligible) of this with Oprah. That the gains of our democracy (Unintelligible) and educate our children and youth. She obviously recognized the potential in our youth.

(Soundbite of music and applause)

HUNTER-GAULT: Over the next few years, Winfrey plans to add grades up through 12, with some 450 students attending. And to keep an eye on things, she's building a house for herself on the grounds.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR News, Henley-on-Klip, South Africa.

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