DNA linked Oprah Winfrey’s maternal ancestry to Liberia, Cameroon and Zambia. While any one of those African countries could be her native homeland — her heart belongs to South Africa.
Winfrey’s love affair with the country began during her first trip in 1995 – a year after the first democratically-elected government came to power with Nelson Mandela as president of the ‘Rainbow Nation’.
“It was a gift from Stedman [Graham],” she shares for the first time in an exclusive interview with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA. Graham is an American businessman and educator known to be very close to Winfrey.
His activism with Nelson Mandela and the late president’s former wife Winnie is what first interested her in the country.
“After Nelson Mandela was out of prison and became president, Stedman wanted to show me the country. While doing the touristy thing, I became enamored with the women, particularly in the rural areas. They would be the ones in the fields working and carrying the water and baskets of wood on their heads. ‘Wow’, I said to him. There seemed to be a culture of women who felt like they were under the power of patriarchy.”
Those images along with the overwhelming poverty she witnessed in the rural areas – especially among the children – stuck with her.
“I could relate,” she shares.
“I grew up poor. When I was 12 years old living on welfare with my mother on North Ninth Street in Milwaukee, she told me, ‘There’ll be no Christmas this year. No Christmas presents. No Santa Claus. We barely have enough to eat’. I was okay with the whole Santa Claus thing but otherwise shocked and embarrassed.”
“What am I going to say when I go back to school? How am I going to be able to tell people I had no Christmas when everybody’s showing their stuff? What’s going to be my story?” she thought.
When the 12-year-old was to be in bed that night, there was a knock on her door. She peered through the keyhole and saw three nuns with baskets of food: canned yams, potatoes, turkey, toys, and other gifts.
“I remember being relieved!” Winfrey recalls. “It became my best Christmas ever.”
That is until decades late r – the year 2000, to be exact.
Winfrey prepared to move into her sprawling new Santa Barbara, California home, then learned it wouldn’t be completed in time for Christmas. She’d have to make alternate plans.
“Whatever happened to those nuns?” she wondered. “How could I be a nun to someone else – to kids who absolutely have no expectation; who have resolved within themselves there is not going to be a Christmas; not enough food; no money or gifts. How can I do that?”
South Africa immediately sprung into her mind.
Back to Africa
Winfrey took 50 of her employees from the United States (US) and hired another 50 in South Africa to join her on a mission she dubbed, Christmas Kindness.
“I went on the search for the prettiest black dolls I could find. I bought hundreds of thousands of them, plus soccer balls, books, school supplies and toys.”
She traveled from village to village – in the impoverished rural areas – where as many as 3,000 kids showed up each day for 10 days to collect Christmas gifts.
“Their story was my story,” Winfrey said. “It was one of the greatest, most rewarding experiences I’ve had.”
Having used Mandela’s home as the base camp where she spent 10 days and shared 29 meals with the elder statesman, Winfrey recalls she was surprisingly comfortable sitting with him in silence.
While sharing a newspaper over tea, they came upon an article about a young girl trying to get into school but not having the tuition fees.
“One day I want to build a school in Africa,” she blurted matter-of-factly.
Without hesitation, Madiba, as Mandela is fondly known, got up and called Kader Asmal, the Minister of Education at the time.
“I didn’t mean that day!” she quipped.
Asmal was forced to leave his vacation to meet with her about the prospects of building a school.
“For a long time, I’d been thinking about how I wanted to use my charitable efforts. The question I always asked myself is, ‘How can I best be used? What resonates with my spirit’? ”
A leadership academy for girls was the answer – one that would target South African girls from the same kind of background she was from: challenged, poor, dysfunctional, unloved, and lonely – but had a sense of resilience and hope.
It was imperative to Winfrey that through the school, each girl develops their sense of worthiness and be provided with a quality education that would not only compete with other top institutions in the country – but also in the world.
On 6 December 2002, after much planning, Mandela and Asmal joined Winfrey to break ground on 52 acres of land – located in Henley on Klip, 30 minutes south of Johannesburg – that would house her dream: the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy For Girls (OWLAG).
Winfrey made many trips to South Africa in preparation for the grand opening. During such time she ended up with who she refers to as her “little stray cubs” – 10 kids not associated with the school – that had no one, and nowhere to go. They needed a home and hope.
“No one knew about them,” she shares publicly for the first time. “I couldn’t get them to the US without passports. I knew that it would be unmanageable for me to try to have 10 kids at home in my apartment in Chicago, and help them adjust to life in the United States. So, I put all of these children into an orphanage in KwaZulu-Natal and built another wing for that orphanage just for my kids. When that started to cause problems for them because they were then known as the ‘Oprah Kids’, I placed them and one of the caretakers in a former Bed & Breakfast I purchased just for them.”
Now adults, all but one of the ‘Oprah Kids’ has finished college.
Finding diamonds in the rough
Nearly 10,000 applications were received for the first year of OWLAG from across all nine South African provinces.
In addition to having good grades and meeting economic threshold limits – a household income of R10,000 ($1,400 at the time) or less – the girls needed what Winfrey called the ‘It Factor’.
“I’m looking for quality of leadership, and a light that I can see – a spark!” Winfrey told the 500 candidates she handpicked for the interview process.
With all the girls on the same playing field, whittling the number down further proved to be tough.
“I’d become too emotional. Some stories were so heartbreaking I was thinking, ‘Oh God, please have the grades’. It was hard to come from a house where nine people are sleeping in the same room – six in one bed – and my school is this girl’s only chance.”
Finding the right teachers was also tricky. Winfrey admits more attention should have been made in the vetting process.
“I made a lot of mistakes that first year. First of all, I was thinking primarily about the girls. If I had it to do over, I would think primarily about infrastructure: who’s going to run it, and who’s going to teach it? It took me a while to get to the point where I had the right kind of leadership. The teachers were post-apartheid South Africa but were raised during apartheid. So, 10 years ago when I said, ‘there is no bar’, a lot of the teachers looked at me cross-eyed.”
“What do you mean there is no bar?” they asked. “Yeah, there’s a bar.”
“No, there is no bar,” Winfrey explained to them. “We’re going to raise these girls to know for themselves there isn’t a bar. The bar is as limited as they are willing to see. I want them to not just reach for the ceiling, but reach for what’s beyond.”
2 January 2007, with a full staff in place and celebrities in attendance, the ribbon was cut, and the boarding school officially opened. It had been five years with more than $40 million spent since Winfrey had made her life-changing promise to Mandela.
“It is my hope that this school will become the dream of every South African girl,” Mandela said at the ceremony. “And they will study hard and qualify for the school one day.”
The 152 girls accepted into the school in its first year – most of whom had already suffered at least six major traumatic events like the loss of a parent or close family member; had been involved in a violent act; been physically or sexually abused; or whose family had been ravaged by AIDS – came with different histories, languages, religions, and purpose.
Twelve-year-old Nompumelelo ‘Mpumi’ Nobiva, whose name means ‘success’ in the Zulu language, was among them.
Born into abject poverty, she lost her mother at age nine to HIV/Aids.
AIDS was raging in Africa at the time. It had infected 5.4 million of South Africa’s 48 million population and hit women disproportionately hard.
Winfrey started an antiretroviral program for family members.
“I’m setting up this clinic because I want you to be alive to see your daughters graduate.”
“What I learned from that,” Winfrey explains, “is you can’t build a clinic or have an offering or a place where people have to come to get the drugs. You have to go to them. So we lost a lot of moms that we shouldn’t have lost, even with me setting that up.”
Mpumi’s 25-year-old mother didn’t survive. In her last days, she made her daughter promise she wouldn’t cry, she’d work hard in school, and never stop believing in God.
Mpumi’s world changed overnight once thrust into her new environment her first year at the Academy.
“I didn’t really understand what a leader was. I had to learn that,” she recalls. “I didn’t understand that you had to create the life that you live. But first, I had to unpack the tragedy of poverty, the devastation of watching my mother die, and the loneliness of not knowing my father. The school provided therapy and a safe place to ask questions and just be.”
“You are here because of your story. There’s no shame in it,” Winfrey shared with Mpumi and the other girls during one of many fireside chats the first year.
“Everything that ever happened to you and how you managed it is your story. You’ve already won. You refused to be shut down. You kept going – in the first grade, in the second grade, and by the time you were in the fourth and the fifth grade, your teachers noticed that there was something about you that wouldn’t give up in spite of everything that’s happened to you. That is why you’re here. And we are here to help you build on that story, to share that story in a way that everybody else can be inspired by your resilience, by your strength, by your courage, and by your bravery because you already have the qualities of leadership.”
Critics and naysayers
Of course, with success, came detractors who were not just critical of Winfrey’s efforts to help South African girls, but also for seemingly neglecting kids in the impoverished areas in the US.
“On what planet is it a good idea to build a school 9,000 miles from your hometown before you build one in Chicago where nearly 50 percent of public school kids don’t graduate?” one critic blasted.
In truth, Winfrey never turned her back on her community.
She’d tried other avenues of giving like the Cabrini-Green Big Sister Project where she took girls from low-income housing apartments in Chicago, Illinois, on outings to give them access to a world different from inner city project life. It failed.
“What I discovered in that process,” she admits, “was that it doesn’t work unless you can change the mind of the child. So unless you have enough time to change someone’s trajectory, giving them hope and letting them see a different world, it can make life worse not better.”
She then focused on low-income families – buying them homes to give them a better life and a better opportunity. That didn’t work.
“If you don’t give people the tools and the skills to take care of themselves,” she says, “and you don’t fundamentally change the way they think about what is possible for themselves, you become another form of welfare.”
Her efforts working with delinquent kids also failed.
“I lasted about two days with that. I didn’t have the patience or temperament to deal with kids who were breaking the law.”
Her OWLAG worked because it was close to her heart and could bring hope to girls who were just like her. More than a gift to Mandela, it became her calling.
Tackling challenges and setbacks
Over the years, there were many changes made and lessons learned at the OWLAG – mostly during the early years: teacher selection was more guarded following an alleged misconduct incident the first year when a matron was charged with molesting several girls; by year two, the school no longer accepted seventh graders because the younger girls experienced prolonged bouts of homesickness; and in 2009, four girls were expelled and three suspended for alleged “inappropriate behavior”. In each instance, Winfrey acted swiftly and “cleaned house” as necessary.
Eventually, she also removed herself from the selection process.
“I knew that no matter what happened, we’d continue to have a 100 percent graduation rate – and we have!”
According to Melvin King, the school’s current headmaster, the school is outperforming some of the best in the country.
“Because we’re not just presenting ourselves as an educational institution,” he states.
“Our work is far more focused on the fact that we have a social justice component, and we have a deep commitment to understanding the issues of Africa. We see ourselves positioned in playing a key role in Africa once our girls are qualified.”
To date, 393 girls have graduated from the school and gone on to attend college or university.
Winfrey made a promise to Mandela 10 years ago that she’d attend every college graduation of her first group of girls.
This year, nine of her girls received college degrees in the US. She attended events to support each one, and served as the guest commencement speaker at three of those colleges: Agnes Scott, Smith and Skidmore.
“I’ve had no regrets about not having children of my own. These are my girls, and I watch like a proud mother when they cross that stage.”
Mpumi, who graduated at the top of OWLAG’s 2011 inaugural class, went on to attend the historically Black U.S. Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte (JCSU), North Carolina, where she majored in interdisciplinary studies with a focus on global outreach.
Winfrey was overcome with emotion when she read an email from Mpumi, days before her JCSU graduation.
“She graduated top of her class,” Winfrey boasts, “and she’s studying now for her Master’s at High Point University. She’s going to be a powerhouse. I expect that she’ll end up being in a major political role in South Africa in the years to come, or even president!”
For every Mpumi that walks across the stage of a university or college, Winfrey sees it as a victory.
“It’s a victory for the school, for her family, and country. And that her family entrusted her life to the school is a victory for me! When I look at my girls, I see their future so bright. It burns my eyes. Whew!”
Winfrey once said to the acclaimed poet, Dr. Maya Angelou: “I’m leaving the school as my legacy.” Angelou reminded her: “The school is not your legacy. Your legacy lives in the life of every life that you touched.”
Now that she’s reached a landmark 10-year anniversary for OWLAG, what’s next?
“My greatest goal,” Winfrey says, “is to have one of the girls become president and I attend the inauguration. There you go!”
– Written by Shirley Neal
In First Person: Noxolo Ntaka On Oprah
Studying at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls was an experience that went beyond my expectations.
I was in the sixth grade when my mother and I had started worrying about where I wonuld go for high school. That year, I received applications from my sixth-grade teacher who told me about a school for girls that Ms. Winfrey was building in Gauteng, South Africa. When I got home that day I immediately ran to my mother to tell her the good news. This was truly the beginning of what would be an opportunity of a lifetime. Not having to worry about school fees and receiving a world class education, is the greatest gift a girl-child can ever receive.
The Academy has played a crucial role in grooming me into an all-rounded young black woman. Its emphasis on the principle of Ubuntu and the ideals of humanity, compassion and service have propelled me towards leading a life of purpose and striving towards making an impactful difference in the near future. I was constantly pushed to beyond my comfort zone and that was a cultivating experience that reminded me that I should always seek to live out the highest expression of myself. I am thankful for the Academy because it has prepared to face the future with excitement as a young black woman in South Africa with dreams of becoming a policy maker and an aspiring scholar.
I first met Ms. Winfrey in 2006 when she interviewed me for the Academy. I had made it to the final round of interviews and had the privilege of being interviewed by Ms. Winfrey and Gayle King, alongside a panel that would be observing. Throughout my primary school years, I grew up watching the Oprah show every day when I came back from school. Never did I ever think that I would finally meet the woman I had admired for all those years and that she would come into my life, to literally change my trajectory. Here was a woman who was building a school for girls like myself in South Africa expecting nothing in return, except the development of the next generation of women who would strive to make a difference in their country and continent. With a focus on philanthropy, volunteerism, and making an in the world, Ms. Winfrey has truly demonstrated just how much power one has to truly make a difference. She has inspired me to have bigger dreams for myself and to continuously strive for excellence in everything that I invest my energy in. She is a role model for young women like myself throughout the continent, a refreshing reminder that it is possible to defy the odds. Now that she has paved the way it is only reasonable that we pay it forward too and create opportunities and access to other young women as well.
– An Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls alumnus, Ntaka is part of the #BeSomebody campaign, an initiative developed by Student Village, featuring 25 young South Africans making an extraordinary impact on their campus, business or society. She is her family’s first graduate and was raised by a mother who was a domestic worker. Currently registered as a Master’s student at the University of the Witwatersrand in the department of Political Studies, she is heading to Oxford to read for an MSc in African Studies.
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