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The politics of Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for girls in South Africa


A few years ago (2002, to be exact) there was a hew and cry loudly heard among many aspects of the African-American community concerning Oprah Winfrey’s announced intention to open a new educational facility for girls in South Africa, just outside of Johannesburg. Why, the most common question asked, did Oprah have to travel so far for such a good deed? Weren’t there enough worthy African-American children in the U.S. who could benefit from Oprah’s generosity?

Undeterred, however, Oprah went on with her project, constructing a beautiful, modern live-in campus for South African high school girls 9grades 8-12) mostly, but not exclusively, Black girls.

Called the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG), the facility officially opened in 2007, and produced its first graduation class of 72 college-eligible girls in 2011. In 2019, its eighth class graduated. To date, the school has graduated more than 750 girls who’ve also successfully passed the South African Matrics Level Examinations (the school has a 100 percent passage rate) To date, Oprah Winfrey has reportedly invested over 140 million dollars in the venture and the female students attend tuition-free.

Oprah had said that her purpose for opening such an educational academy, besides her consultation with then-South African president Nelson Mandela, was “to provide educational and leadership opportunities for academically gifted girls from impoverished backgrounds in South Africa who exhibited leadership qualities for making a difference in the world.” Oprah said she wanted to help girls who grew up in similar economic circumstances as she had,  that is, “economically disadvantaged, but not poor in mind or spirit”.

And Oprah appointed the school lavishly, including a beauty salon, two theatres (one indoor, one outdoor) and a yoga classroom, altogether spending more than $40 million dollars to initially establish what has become one of the very best schools in South Africa. The curriculum followed includes, but is not specifically limited to, the regular subjects required by the government’s National Education Department.

The school has become one of the most popular and hard-to-gain-admission-to in all of Africa, and many of its graduates have already gone on to university education and civil service employment.

Asked if she considers South Africa a new home for herself, Oprah rather recently said that according to her specific DNA analysis, her family was Mende from West Africa (as are 90 percent of African-Americans), but that she considers herself from Africa broadly, so she can choose whatever part of the continent she wants as a birthright.

A quality education has been an essential ingredient in the freedom mix advocated by scores of Black leaders, from Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, Mary McLeod Bethune, Julius Nyerere, Rosa Parks, Carter G. Woodson, Toni Morrison, and on and on. Such an education is not seen as the only seasoning in the freedom mix, but as one of the indispensable components for us to get to and to sustain real freedom and respect, here, Africa and everywhere Black folk live. Obtaining and repeating such a strong, organic education that teaches what we’ve done and are capable of doing again and again (not simply servicing white folks), is part and parcel of the real Pan Africanism being built by the African Union for Africans on the continent and those who don’t live on the continent.

The mantra is ‘well-educating an African man builds the leader for many people, and well educating African women builds the nation for us all.’ Well done, Ms. Winfrey. Well done. By the way, way to go on the George Floyd case!

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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