I have a confession to make. I am a recovering Oprah Winfrey Show fan. And, like any junkie, if you allowed me close quarters to my drug I would fall gratefully into the abyss, spending days on the sofa in front of the TV in tracky pants and a chocolate-stained T-shirt. Luckily for my family I went cold turkey when we moved to Germany.
Whatever you feel about Oprah Winfrey, she has a way of packaging hope and making it accessible to all. There is something so seductive about her glossy brand of self-reliance, spirituality and good make-up. When she’s peddling her vision up there onscreen looking gorgeous, you can’t help believing that a smidgen of what she’s got would be what you need to turn your life around.
While I drank it in, I also found much of it corny: when someone’s telling their life story, there’s always got to be a blurry shot of them reading by candle-light (spirituality), walking in the forest/along a beach (alone, but bravely so), cooking a meal (family values). Somehow, though, it’s still addictive. Millions of daily viewers would testify the same.
Along with being a talk show phenomenon, she’s a publisher, an Oscar-nominated actress, an author and a philanthropist. Time Magazine and CNN both say she’s arguably the world’s most successful woman. One of her favourite places to dispense her energy and money is South Africa, where she reserves special attention for poverty-stricken and AIDS-afflicted children.
Her latest project caught my interest. Oprah’s funding a school for girls in Meyerton south of Johannesburg. The school, which will cost $10 million, will eventually cater for the educational needs of 450 students, chosen for their talent and leadership skills. They will come from families that cannot afford to fund their schooling, and – get this – sophisticated communications technology means Oprah will be able to chime in on their lessons, all the way from Chicago! (For more details, here’s the BBC report.)
When I first read this, I couldn’t help thinking it was a pity that some of South Africa’s millions of AIDS orphans weren’t seeing some of that money. But South Africa also needs great female leaders, and there’s probably no-one better in the world to teach girls that a modest background needn’t hold them back. Imagine, on top of a superb education, they’re going to get the Oprah brand of self-belief, lessons in entrepreneurship and leadership, and the chance of some good grooming tips.
While girls in South Africa already have excellent role models, with women in the cabinet, in parliament and in business, I don’t think there’s anyone in the country with the financial clout to make a gesture as grand as this. I hope it translates into reality for girls with potential. They are the first generation born free, and they can do anything. Do they need Oprah to tell them that? No. Does the country need Oprah to kickstart the identifying of female leadership from disadvantaged communities? Maybe.
I think the message for young women and their parents to take from this school is that South African girls, no matter where they come from and no matter whether they get into Oprah’s model school or not, can also hope for the very best of what life has to offer them.
*** Achtung! Some Oprah trivia! The glamorous one is to voice the part of Gussy the Goose in the new movie of Charlotte’s Web … watch this space. ***