(Tuesday, January 2, 2007, Hauteng Provence, South Africa)
“This is the proudest day of my life, a supreme moment of destiny, the fulfillment of my dreams,” Oprah Winfrey said from the stage of the packed auditorium. The occasion and cause for her great excitement, of course, was the opening of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, a 20-building, 22-acre, $40 million-plus campus unlike anything the new students (or any of us who had flown in from the U.S.) could have imagined.
What a magnificent journey it was for us, being in our Motherland, visiting South Africa again and spending the holidays with friends and so many people we had connected with over the years working on the magazine, the Essence Music Festival and the Essence Awards show we used to produce. Black royalty was in attendance: the Mandelas, Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson and Vernon Winfrey, Oprah’s father, who had saved her life and taught her the importance of being grateful and giving back, she told a riveted audience in the school’s beautiful auditorium during the opening ceremony.
Oprah’s family and friends had traveled from throughout the country to be with her. Her best friend, Gayle, was our co-host; Steadman was ever-present, always with a watchful eye and supportive hand on his beloved. Dozens of celebrities came and some brought their families. It was surprising to us that for so many well-known African Americans, this was their very first time on the Continent. Among the hundred or so of us were Quincy Jones, Andrew Young, Mariah Carey and her superstar manager, Benny Medina, who, along with Mary J. Blige (who was with her husband, Kendu Isaacs) and Lady Cicely, were the hottest dancers and were still shaking it up long after we’d ushered in the new year and the rest of us had collapsed. Along with their wives and children, Chris Rock and Spike Lee came out, as did the loving media marrieds Deborah Roberts and Al Roker and their family. Holly Robinson Pete amazed us all, arriving with her mother, hubby, their four little ones and two nannies. Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Tyler Perry and producing partner Reuben Cannon, India.Arie, Anna Deavere Smith, Chris Tucker, Star Jones, Kimberly Elise, Suzanne de Passe, BeBe Winans and Patti LaBelle were all there as well along with the most gorgeous and joyful Tina Turner and a host of others. That’s the power of the O factor!
After spending days of splendor in Sun City’s extravagantly designed Palace Hotel, an evening safari and a New Year’s Eve party with more that 35 acts that lasted ‘til the wee hours, the caravan headed for the Westcliff Hotel in Sandton, a suburb of Johannesburg. From there we traveled to the campus to celebrate the true purpose of this stunning gathering: the opening of Oprah’s leadership academy for girls.
The auditorium was a state-of-the-art facility comparable or superior to anything available on any college campus in South Africa or in America. Oprah swept onto the stage looking resplendent in a billowing floor-length, silk, fuchsia, shirtwaist dress. Behind her sat 152 seventh- and eighth-grade girls in smart green and tan uniforms; girls whose aptitude, optimism and dogged determination to succeed in spite of formidable obstacles had won them a place in the school’s coveted inaugural class. Their stories had us and the more than 600 guests crying tears of joy and cheering their triumphs by turns: 12- and 13-year-old girls, many of whom had lost their parents to AIDS or violence and who were raising themselves, pursuing their education and yet somehow achieving at a high level academically; girls who had been abused and others who daily had to navigate a gauntlet of men pursuing them for sex on the way to and from the schools they attended before being selected to come to this safe place, the Leadership Academy.
These are girls who have “it” Oprah said—that certain indefinable leadership quality that, in addition to their assiduous study, was evidenced in their bright smiles and irrepressibly positive outlook as many of them spoke before the audience. All the girls have definite goals and objectives—to become minister of education, president of South Africa, the scientist who would find the cure for AIDS. Curiously, coming from them, such lofty goals did not seem extravagant fantasies, but perfectly plausible, as most of the girls who were admitted to the school were selected on the strength of their confidence, interests and achievement in math and science. After hearing them speak about themselves, we had no doubt that there are many future leaders of South Africa among them.
For these 152 girls, it has been a life-transforming experience, and many of them were in tears as well. They spoke about how the school would not only change the trajectory of their lives, but literally save their lives. Things as basic as running water and flush toilets represented a quantum leap forward in their fortunes. They come from environments with few resources and have pursued their aspirations on blind faith. These girls—every one of them—have a hunger for learning.
For Oprah, the opening of the academy was the culmination of a journey that began with a meeting she’d had with Nelson Mandela some years ago and the idea to build a school for girls in South Africa. The former president was there as well for the groundbreaking in 2002 and again for the opening. He entered the auditorium to cries of “Madiba!” and a prolonged standing ovation. What a joy it was for us to be witness to the good in the world that compassion, vision, courage and philanthropy can combine to do.
—Susan L. Taylor and Khephra Burns
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