Oprah Winfrey, Fulfilling Pledge to Mandela, Opens South African School for Girls

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By Celean Jacobson
Associated Press
Wednesday, January 3, 2007

JOHANNESBURG, Jan. 2 -- Talk show host Oprah Winfrey opened a school Tuesday for disadvantaged girls, fulfilling a promise she made to former president Nelson Mandela six years ago.

"I wanted to give this opportunity to girls who had a light so bright that not even poverty could dim that light," Winfrey said at a news conference. Initially, 152 girls will attend the $40 million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.

Mandela, 88, attended the opening ceremony of the school in the small town of Henley-on-Klip, south of Johannesburg. He looked frail as he was helped onto the stage by his wife, Graca Machel, and Winfrey. But he beamed with joy and his speech resonated with pride.

"It is my hope that this school will become the dream of every South African girl and they will study hard and qualify for the school one day," he said in a firm voice.

The project that created a 28-building campus with computer and science laboratories, a library, a theater and a wellness center began with a $10 million donation from Winfrey in 2002.

On Tuesday, Winfrey rejected suggestions that the school was elitist and unnecessarily luxurious. "If you are surrounded by beautiful things and wonderful teachers who inspire you, that beauty brings out the beauty in you," she said.

Singers Tina Turner, Mary J. Blige and Mariah Carey, actors Sidney Poitier and Chris Tucker, and director Spike Lee also attended the opening.

Winfrey, who does not have children, said she was building a home for herself on the campus to spend time with the girls and be involved in their education: "I love these girls with every part of my being."

Many of the students come from families affected by AIDS; an estimated 5.5 million of South Africa's 48 million people are living with HIV, which hits women disproportionately hard. "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.

Winfrey referred repeatedly to her own impoverished childhood and said she was grateful that she at least had a good education, declaring this to be "the most vital aspect of my life."

The idea for the school was born in 2000 at a meeting between Winfrey and Mandela. She said she decided to build the academy in South Africa rather than the United States out of love and respect for Mandela and because of her own African roots.

Winfrey's academy received 3,500 applications from across the country. A total of 152 girls ages 11 and 12 were accepted. To qualify, they had to show both academic and leadership potential and have a household income of no more than $787 a month. Plans call for the academy eventually to accommodate 450 girls.

Lesego Tlhabanyane, 13, proudly wore her new green and white uniform at the ceremony to raise the South African flag. "I would have had a completely different life if this hadn't happened to me. Now I get a life where I get to be treated like a movie star," she said.

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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