U.S. talk show queen Oprah Winfrey opened a world-class school for poor but talented South African girls Tuesday, fulfilling a long-cherished dream and a promise to her hero, Nelson Mandela.
"I wanted to give this opportunity to girls who had a light so bright that not even poverty could dim that light," Winfrey said, declaring that it was "the proudest, gravest day of my life."
Former President Mandela was invited to be among the dignitaries at the opening of the lavish Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in the small town of Henley-on-Klip, south of Johannesburg. He was among a string of international celebrities expected to attend - though the list was kept secret and journalists were kept away from the guests.
The US$40 million (EUR 30.4 million) academy aims to give 152 girls from deprived backgrounds a quality education in a country where schools are struggling to overcome the legacy of apartheid.
Eventually the school will accommodate 450 girls.
Winfrey said at a press conference that she hoped that by educating girls she would help "change the face of a nation."
"Girls who are educated are less likely to get HIV/AIDS and in this country which has such a pandemic, we have to begin to change the pandemic," she said.
Many of the girls come from families affected by the disease which has infected 5.4 million of the 48 million population and hit women disproportionately hard.
Winfrey referred repeatedly to her own impoverished childhood and said she was grateful that she at least had a good education.
"I was a poor girl who grew up with my grandmother, like so many of these girls, with no water and electricity," said the talk show host, dressed in a shocking pink ball gown and jacket.
She vowed to make the academy the "best school in the world," and promised that she would continue to support the girls so they could attend any university in the world.
The idea for the school was born in 2000 at a meeting between Winfrey and anti-apartheid icon Mandela. She said she decided to build the academy in South Africa rather than the United States out of love and respect for Mandela and because of her own African roots.
She said she planned a second school for boys and girls in the eastern province of KwazuluNatal.
Built on 21 hectares (52 acres), the 28-building campus, which was originally to cost US$10 million, resembles a luxury hotel more than the rundown schools most of the girls know. It boasts state-of-the-art classrooms, computer and science laboratories, a library, theater and wellness center. Each girl has a two-bedroom suite, the AP reports.
Winfrey rejected suggestions that her school was elitist and unnecessarily luxurious.
"If you are surrounded by beautiful things and wonderful teachers who inspire you, that beauty brings out the beauty in you," she said.
She said she chose "every brick tile, sheet and spoon," and even lay in the beds to check on the right distance for the light switch.
The result was a far cry from the grim state-funded schools, especially in the sprawling townships that sprang up under white racist rule, which are hopelessly overcrowded and lack even basic facilities like books. They are also plagued by gang violence, drugs and a high rate of pregnancy among school girls.
Despite government efforts to improve the school system, the education department said last week that two-thirds of the 1,667,000 children who started school 12 years ago dropped out, and only five percent of the total intake did well enough in their studies to be eligible to go to university. The class started in 1994, the year of the country's first multiracial elections, and its members were dubbed "Madiba's Children" after the clan name for Mandela, who came to power with the onset of democracy.
Winfrey selected the 11- to 12-year-old girls from 3,500 applications across the country. To qualify, they had to show both academic and leadership potential and have a household income of no more than 5,000 rands (US$787; Ђ600) a month.
"I went to their homes. I met their teachers and their parents. I know all of them by name. Their story is my story," she declared.
Winfrey, who is childless, said she was building a home for herself on the campus to spend time with the girls and be involved in their education.
"I love these girls with every part of my being. I didn't know you could feel this way about other people's children."