FabAfriq Magazine

The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, South Africa

This project which is open to girls of all colour was born out of a discussion over tea, which the American entrepreneur, TV host, philanthropist and author had with former South African president Nelson Mandela, in 2002

Why the need for such an institution.

Oprah Winfrey was inspired to open this school because she had a disadvantaged childhood and wanted to create an opportunity for girls like her in South Africa to have access to educational and leadership opportunities, girls from impoverished backgrounds who have clearly demonstrated leadership qualities, and girls who grew up like her, “economically disadvantaged, but not poor in mind or spirit.

This is especially very determinant in the South African society where access to quality education, exposure and appropriate mentorship especially for impoverished communities is a rare commodity.


Nelson Mandela, while discussing in his home in Qunu told Winfrey that poverty could be defeated through education, and Winfrey in agreement told him she would like to build a school in South Africa one day. This unleashed a very productive chain of events. In 2007, seven years after this initial discussion and more than $40 million later, the academy which is a boarding school with state-of-the-art facilities (52-acre campus, a high-tech computer lab, a wellness center, and a library housing 10,000 books and a cozy fireplace, a beauty salon, two theatres-one indoor, one outdoor-and a yoga classroom) opened.

What makes the academy stand out

It is very important to note that with all these facilities, the tuition for this school is totally free. Admission is based on making sure that students actually come from backgrounds marked by poverty and trauma. Secondly, Winfrey emphasized the need for a strong support network of teachers, psychologists, and social workers to help the girls not only succeed academically but also heal emotionally. In 2011, the students overcame adversity and saw 72 out of the original 75 admitted, graduate with full college scholarships in universities across South Africa and the United States.

Now, the number of students have more than tripled, and admits young girl who after five years come out as strong, mature young ladies ready to forge ahead and grasp opportunities which without the academy, will be impossible. To quote one of the students: "When I came to school, I thought opportunities were meant for other people—people who are more confident, more articulate," says Tabitha Ramotwala, a graduating senior set to attend Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Massachusetts. "But the academy helped me find my confidence, and I even applied for leadership training. I became more in tune with myself."

Although Winfrey received huge criticism among which the rationale behind the lavishness of the school, Mom-Oprah as she is called by the girls, responded by saying that "if you are surrounded by beautiful things and wonderful teachers who inspire you, that beauty brings out the beauty in you”. Admissions are now closed for 2020, but the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls is still open every year for admissions that have changed the lives of hundreds of girls so far.

In her 2011 graduating address, Winfrey said "This school was founded on the principle of Ubuntu, 'I am because we are,'"… "This spirit has allowed us to not just build a school but create a family foundation." She also noted that fact that most of the seniors who graduated that initial year were born in 1994, the year apartheid ended, and into a freshly reborn nation that said: You are free. You are free to rise. You are free to soar.”


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