Oprah opens academy for poor girls in South Africa

HENLEY-ON-KLIP, South Africa (Reuters) - American talk show host Oprah Winfrey on Tuesday opened a $40 million school for disadvantaged South African girls which she has paid for out of her own pocket.

Oprah Winfrey is joined by some of the first 152 students of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls during the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the opening of the school in Meyerton, outside Johannesburg, January 2, 2007. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

The sleekly designed campus, sprawling 52 acres in a sleepy community south of Johannesburg, encompasses classrooms and laboratories equipped with flat screen computers, a yoga studio, beauty salon and well-stocked library.

“When you educate a girl you begin to change the face of a nation,” said Winfrey. “The school is going to change the trajectory of their lives.”

She said the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls was inspired by her own humble beginnings, struggling to survive with no electricity or running water, and as a former victim of physical and sexual abuse.

Former South African president Nelson Mandela, on hand for the opening celebration, praised Winfrey.

“This is not a distant donation you’ve made but a project that is clearly close to your heart,” Mandela said.

“South Africa should take a lesson from you about what personal commitment means.”

American singers Mariah Carey, Tina Turner and Mary J. Blige, comedian Chris Rock, actor Sydney Poitier and filmmaker Spike Lee attended the star-studded school launch.

Slideshow ( 3 images )


“The future is so bright for them it burns my eyes. They want to be presidents and doctors. We don’t tell the girls to become anything but their own best self,” said Winfrey.

Activists criticize the South African government for neglecting public schools particularly in poor and rural areas where classrooms are often overcrowded and inadequately funded.

High levels of classroom violence, teenage pregnancy and drug abuse exacerbate the poor standard of education.

Winfrey said she hoped a better education could shield South Africa girls from contracting HIV, a disease that affects an estimated 5.5 million of South Africa’s 45 million people.

“Girls who are educated are less likely to get HIV/AIDS, and in this country which has such a pandemic, we have to begin to change the pandemic,” she said.

While authorities seek to expand a program to waive school fees for some of the poorest South Africans, many believe that the legacy of apartheid-era laws remain a disadvantage for underprivileged black students.

Private schools are, in large part, reserved for white pupils whose parents can afford tuition payments.

The first batch of 152 mostly black students, chosen from thousands of applicants, will eventually be followed by another 300 girls between Grades 7 and 12, Winfrey said.

Admission criteria mean the family of each girl must earn less than 60,000 rand ($8,663) annually to get their foot in the door. After that, pupils were hand-picked by Winfrey for displaying strong leadership qualities in interviews.

Tuition and board is free at the residential school.

“Where we live there are lots of gangsters and I want to change all of that,” Noxolo Buthelezi, 13, said in her new school uniform -- a forest green pleated skirt and jacket and collared white shirt.