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HENLEY-ON-KLIP, South Africa — Johnson Mncube remembers the first day at Oprah Winfrey’s boarding school for underprivileged South African girls, when 11- and 12-year-olds were crying at the thought of being separated from their families, and he said he almost wanted to put his own daughter in his pocket and take her home.
Five years later, Mncube was joyful she stayed. On Saturday, he gazed proudly at his daughter, dressed elegantly in white for the first graduation ceremony at Winfrey’s school. Bongekile Mncube is headed to the University of Johannesburg to study politics and economics, and vows to one day help “build the economy of this country.”
“We are so thankful to Oprah,” said her father, a pastor and small businessmen who never went to high school. “We pray that God helps her to fulfill the vision that she had.”
Elgar’s “Pomp and circumstance” rang out Saturday as the graduates marched in, some unsteady on new high heels. The ceremony saw cheers and tears, including Winfrey’s own.
Winfrey’s school is an attempt to wield philanthropy and celebrity against South Africa’s social and educational crises. High-achieving students from poor families were admitted after a rigorous application process in which Winfrey was deeply involved, and she has visited regularly to counsel her girls. She held a last, late-night “pajama party” with the graduates Friday.
Winfrey told reporters after the ceremony that her girls would continue to be able to rely on her support. A counseling unit had been set up to help the graduates budget time, money and priorities in university.
In a graduation speech, Winfrey praised the teachers, administrators, social workers, psychologists and family members she said had ensured the students succeeded. Winfrey said she has learned it takes a team to support students, especially those who have experienced the poverty and personal trauma that define so many South African lives.
Winfrey said she sees the students as her daughters, and listed the blows they have experienced: “Divorce. Violence. Molestation. The loss of one parent. The loss of another parent. Sorrow. Sadness. Grief.”
The first class to graduate from the school overcame adversity to see 72 of the 75 original members graduate. All 72 are headed to universities in South Africa and the United States. Across South Africa, more than half a million members of the class of 2011 disappeared before the 496,000 remaining took their final exams, and only a quarter of those who graduated did well enough to qualify for university study, according to government figures.
“I’m one proud momma today,” said Winfrey, who wore eye shadow and a flowing gown in green, a school color.
Quoting Maya Angelou, she called the graduates “phenomenal, phenomenal, phenomenal women.”
Graca Machel, whose husband former South African President Nelson Mandela inspired Winfrey to open the school, called on the graduates to change the world. Mandela has retired from public life and did not attend the ceremony. He attended the opening of the school in 2007.
“You are leaders,” Machel said in her graduation speech. “But be humble. Listen. Learn. Try, and try again.”
Winfrey, among the wealthiest women in the world, spent $40 million to build the school, giving it facilities many South African universities might envy. But she said the school’s success was owed to teachers who came early and stayed late, social workers like one who traveled hundreds of miles (kilometers) to rescue a student who had encountered violence during a visit home, and parents who instilled discipline despite difficult home lives.
Winfrey asked staff and family members to stand for applause during the ceremony.
Winfrey encouraged all South African schools to raise their expectations, saying the experience of her school showed young people would respond by excelling. From the start, Winfrey’s students were told they should set their sights on university.
Despite the money and intentions, the school has had trouble. Soon after opening, a woman working as a dormitory matron was accused of abusing students. She was acquitted in 2010. Winfrey, who has spoken of being abused as a child and called the allegations against the matron crushing, and has said the trial’s outcome was “profoundly” disappointing.
Winfrey settled a defamation lawsuit filed in Philadelphia by the school’s former headmistress, Nomvuyo Mzamane, who claimed Winfrey defamed her in remarks made in the wake of the scandal.
Last year, a baby born to a student at the school was found dead.
Winfrey said Saturday there were times when she was discouraged, but that “I always held the vision that this day was possible.”
Winfrey noted the gradates were born in 1994, the year apartheid ended, “into a nation that said: You are free. You are free to rise. You are free to soar.”
Graduate Bongekile Mncube took Winfrey’s words to heart.
“The world should watch out,” she said. “We’re about to take over.”
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