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Oprah's £20m school proves she's not all talk

Oprah Winfrey, the talk show star and media mogul, likes to make friends through generosity, famously once giving every member of her studio audience a free car to take home. Yesterday, however, she celebrated giving of a slightly less frivolous kind.

Surrounded by American celebrities, Winfrey, listed as the richest black person on the planet, presided over the opening of a school for disadvantaged girls just outside Johannesburg, South Africa, built with $40m (£20m) of her own money and set to begin classes on Friday.

The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy will only be a small drop in the ocean of educational challenges in South Africa, where state schools are bursting and private schools are still largely white. For now it will accommodate just 152 girls, aged between 11 and 13, handpicked byWinfrey, on a 22-acre site at Henley-on-Klip, south of Johannesburg. Eventually it will have room for 450 girls.

The ebullient Winfrey was not in modest mood as she described the significance of the school, for her as much as for the students. Applauding her on the sidelines were the singers Tina Turner and Mariah Carey as well as the actor Sidney Poitier and director Spike Lee.

"When you educate a girl, you begin to change the face of a nation," she boldly declared. "I wanted to give this opportunity to girls who had a light so bright that not even poverty could dim that light." Only families with incomes under $700 a month could apply for places.

Responding to criticism that the school, complete with its own beauty salon, yoga studio and indoor and outdoor theatres, is too luxurious and elitist - she also picked the pleated-skirt uniforms and canteen china - she responded: "These girls deserve to be surrounded by beauty, and beauty does inspire."

The project arose from a pledge Winfrey first made six years ago to former president Nelson Mandela to help ease South Africa's education problems.

Mr Mandela, 88, who interrupted his holiday to be at the ceremony, looked frail as he was helped on to the stage by his wife Graca Machel and Winfrey. But he beamed with joy and pride. "It is my hope that this school will become the dream of every South African girl and they will study hard and qualify for the school one day," he said in a firm voice.

Winfrey, who was raised mostly by her grandmother in rural poverty, said : "For me education has been the road to success. To me education is freedom. And I believe the future of this country, of Africa, will depend upon the leadership of its women. And that's not just feminist rhetoric. It really is the truth as I see it." Winfrey, who has donated millions to educate disadvantaged children in the US through the Oprah Winfrey Scholars Program, is also to open another school for boys and girls in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

Building the academy, Winfrey said, was also her way of helping South Africa deal with HIV and Aids. "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."

Lesego Tlhabanyane, 13, one of the girls at the ceremony preparing to start at the academy, said: "I would have had a completely different life if this hadn't happened to me. Now I get to be treated like a movie star."