US phenomenon Oprah Winfrey hosted 6 000 adoring fans at Gallagher Estate in Midrand at the first South African O Magazine O You event this week. Her appearance on the stage was met with the sort of rapturous applause she received from her audience for 25 years when her hit talk show aired.
Winfrey drew a crowd of young and old, all eager to hear the message she has been advocating for as long as she has been famous: fulfil your destiny and live your best life. Or as she put it: “You want to be the fullest expression of who you are. When the time comes you want to be able to say you blew it out.”
For more than 5 000 episodes of Winfrey’s talk show, her aim was to help her audience find a purpose to their lives. It was the same message she brought to her excited fans at Gallagher Estate, who hung on her every word. It was also the message shared by the guest speakers who preceded her. Author Ariane de Bonvoisin, radio personality Redi Thlabi and professional organiser and de-clutterer Julie Morgenstern shared the light touch of their host as they proclaimed a simple message: from change something good will come.
For the South African women at the event, Winfrey’s assurances that they could take control in small ways and create lives of value had helped them find meaning in their own lives. They identified with her struggles, with her weight issues, with the abuse she suffered and the depression she overcame. As private banker Anthea Riffle put it: “We really do idolise her because we see so much of ourselves in her.”
The audience was a cross section of the powerful – Agang leader Mamphela Rampele and first lady Thandeka Zuma – media personalities – the Raphaelys and morning TV host Leanne Manas – and young and old fans. The front of row, however, was given over to students from the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.
Samantha Page, the editor of O Magazine South Africa, used the event to announce the launch of the OWN network programming block on the TLC channel (DSTV 172). From 17 October, every Thursday and Sunday, Oprah’s fans will be able to watch her brand of feel-good spirituality. The OWN network, Winfrey’s broadcast group, was not an immediate success and she used the lessons she learned from righting that ship to advise people who got to ask questions at the end of her presentation. The most valuable lesson she learned, Winfrey revealed, was finding the right people. “Surround yourself with people who know how to make your vision come true.”
She added: “Ultimately, you have to make money because you are a business. I let other people worry about that. I worry about the message. I am always, always, always about holding true to the vision and the message, and when you are true to that, then people respond.”
In such interactions, she uses the story of her own life and her triumphs over adversity, discrimination and abuse to inspire the women who listen to her. Without a regular TV show to spread her message, she interacts on a more personal level and her most important South African audience are the girls she calls her daughters, the young women who attend her academy in Henley-on-Klip, in Gauteng.
This weekend, the academy held its third graduation ceremony. There are now 160 South African girls receiving university educations thanks to Winfrey’s largesse. “When Madiba asked me how Africa was going to change, I told him I believed it was going to be her women that would change Africa,” she recalled.
The academy was established in 2007 to provide a superior education to girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. Winfrey’s generosity grew out of a conversation over tea with Nelson Mandela at his Qunu home about education’s role in alleviating poverty. Built at a cost of $40-million, the school’s first graduating class of 157 girls are now at universities around the world. At the time of the academy’s opening Winfrey said: “The best way to effect change long term is to give children exposure and opportunity and nurture them to understand their own power and possibility.”
Winfrey is a child of poverty, whose talent and hard work has made her wealthy and famous. The more powerful and wealthy she has become, however, the more she has looked for what she calls “important work”. When asked, she points to the establishment of her academy and the time she spends with her girls as her most joyful.
In 2000, when she promised Mandela that she would start a school, her desire was informed by the old women and young girls she had seen walking along the road. She told the Gallagher Estate audience that those women reminded her of the grandmother who raised her and the young girls accompanying them could so easily be her.
Winfrey shared the story of an awakening she had as a three-year-old. Her grandmother’s most fervent dream for Winfrey was for her to find good white employers in America’s South. “I was churning butter while she was boiling clothes and she kept saying to me that I needed to learn how to do these things because I would need to know how to do them. I promised myself then that that would not be my future.”
Pointing skywards, she ended by saying: “Every so often I tell my gran: ‘Yes I have wonderful white people working for me now.’”
In all, 6 000 women and about 10 men spent a day being inspired and motivated by Winfrey. For her audience, the community that has formed around her is just as important; these are woman like Shamala Chetty, who attended with her sister and friends. “I was going through a rough time this year. It was nice just to be around other women, other people who have come through and survived,” she said.
And that is the secret of Winfrey’s appeal to South African women, and perhaps to women across the world. “She gives me hope for my life. It feels as if she is the only person in the world who understands how I feel.”