Mama Oprah’s daughters hit 100%

2012-01-14 19:53

“It’s all about the white dresses” joked TV icon and business mogul Oprah Winfrey as she celebrated the first graduating class of The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.

The event was held yesterday afternoon at Henley-on-Klip, south of Johannesburg.

The Grade 12 class of 2011, the first since the school was established, achieved a 100% pass rate with 188 distinctions from 72 pupils.

All clad in matching white dresses and shoes, hair and make-up done by professionals, the graduates received their matric national certificates in an auditorium filled with family, friends, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, keynote speaker Graça Machel and Oprah’s long-time partner, Stedman Graham.

Oprah kicked off her speech with a short ululation, adding “this is a day of triumph and victory for girls who are born free. These girls were born into a nation that said: You are free to rise, soar and be all that you can ever imagine. Be all that your ancestors believed, dreamed and desired,” she said.

“I have been on a mission my whole life to be able to give back what I have been given. Today I am fulfilling that mission. This class will prove that when you invest in the leadership of girls, you invest in a nation. Today I get to see the result of that vision – in white dresses.”

She also thanked former president Nelson Mandela for inspiring her to establish the academy. She shared anecdotes about how Madiba set the wheels in motion after she shared her idea during a 10-day visit to Qunu in Eastern Cape.

“I want to thank Nelson Mandela for his leadership and support to help make this school a reality. Although he is not present with us today, I know he shares with us the same sense of pride and accomplishment,” she said.

Oprah spoke candidly about the “turbulent time” in 2007 when a female school staffer was accused of physically and sexually abusing pupils. “At that point, I though I had lost my way with the school. But Madiba said to me: ‘Don’t give up. Don’t lose sight of the vision’.”

Oprah said that she has been enhanced as a person through the time spent with the girls.

“They have grown. We have grown as a school. Today we offer the world new scholars, girls who now can face any challenge as they move on to the next chapter in their academic and life journey. The future leaders of South Africa. The future leaders of the world.”

In her keynote address, Machel told the young graduates about the realities of life. “Being a woman in the 21st century is a challenge. But you have had the privilege and with that comes that responsibility to leave your footprints in history.”

She encouraged the graduates to be “social change-makers and be in the driving seat of change”.

Two of the girls were honoured with special awards. Bongeka Zuma, from Nkwezela in KwaZulu-Natal, achieved six distinctions. She is considering studying political science at the Spelman University in the US. She received the Dux Award for academic excellence.

One of the graduates told the guests about the pressures of studying at the school and expectations from her family and community.

“At first it was daunting because the school set the bar so high that it was barely visible. In fact, as Mama Oprah would say, ‘there is no bar’.

“We have all come to believe in ourselves and the pressure is what will make us even better leaders to bring change,” said one of the top ten students Mashadi Kekana.

Said the head of the school, Anne van Zyl: “We have in place support systems for the girls to help them manage their finances and everything else in life.”

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