Oprah and Michelle inspire youth

Image: Flickr, Luke Vargas
Image: Flickr, Luke Vargas

Last week South Africa was visited by two remarkable women, American women, black women.

Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States, and Oprah Winfrey, recently retired as a world-renowned talk show hostess for 25 years.

Michelle Obama came to meet young women leaders from across Africa and to inspire other young women and men to work to improve their environment and the conditions in which their fellow citizens live.

During her stay here Obama forcefully reiterated the point that her husband, Barack Obama, had made in his speech in Accra, Ghana, soon after his Inauguration as President of the United States. She said his administration “is not simply focused on extending a helping hand to Africa, but focusing on partnering with Africans who will shape their future by combating corruption, and building strong democratic institutions, by growing new crops, caring for the sick.”

She added, “more than ever before, we will be looking to all of you, our young people, to lead the way.”

Obama then went on to say: “And I’m not just saying that to make you all feel good. The fact is that in Africa, people under 25 make up 60 percent of the population. And here in South Africa, nearly two-thirds of citizens are under the age of 30. So over the next 20 years, the next 50 years, our future will be shaped by your leadership.”

In sending me the text of her address, Cuthu Skosana, a young woman who was present when Michelle Obama delivered her address, remarked, “I hope you find this as inspiring as I did.” Michele had hit her targets. It is now for the young people in her audience in Regina Mundi Church in Soweto to take up her challenge and make a difference.

Our second black American woman visitor, Oprah Winfrey, has already done her bit to make it possible for talented young women from disadvantaged backgrounds to play their part in assisting their fellow citizens towards a better life.

In 2007 she created and financed the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in Henley-on-Klip near Meyerton, south of Johannesburg. We are told on its website that “the students who are invited to attend the Academy have shown that they have the ability to excel, and to move beyond challenging circumstances.

“Through exemplary service to their communities, they have demonstrated their potential, and raise the next generation of transformative South African leaders.”

I was able to observe for myself what opportunities are made available to these young women and how they were grasping them with both hands when I visited the Academy to address their Freedom Day Assembly last year.

Winfrey’s contribution to helping young women excel and achieve the challenge Michelle Obama set for them was recognised at the University of the Free State last Friday when she received an honorary doctorate.

She dissolved into tears when she observed the transformation away from the racism of the past that had been achieved at the university.

Both women came from humble backgrounds and were able through their own efforts and determination to reach the lofty heights they have attained. Both are inspiring role-models for young citizens and especially for women.

I was privileged on Saturday to observe and participate in another event that celebrated the ability of the human spirit to rise above adversity. I attended a ceremony at the Usizu Lwethu Special School for the intellectually disabled in Daveyton on the East Rand. The school was created in 1982, at the height of apartheid, through the efforts of young women of an earlier generation, led by Cecilia Sithole, who recognised this unfulfilled need in the community and did something about it.

Today nearly 400 learning disadvantaged girls and boys, with IQs below 75, attend the school and are taught life skills, such as wood and metalwork, pottery-making, computer literacy, art, beadwork, and other trades that can give them the opportunity of a better life.

The school, under the dedicated leadership of principal M. J. Mpshe, has been able to enter partnerships with large and small business and service organisations, such as Rotary, to build new facilities and acquire equipment that the over-stretched education department could never have afforded.

It was through my membership of a Rotary Club and my association there with successful business people Brian and Thozi Skosana that I and some of my fellow Rotarians were invited to be present at the recognition ceremony where our club’s contribution to the purchase of a kiln for the pottery class was acknowledged.

Other successful business people from the black community were also there, plowing the fruits of their own successes back into the community through their public-spirited support of a local deserving project.  And those brave and far-sighted people, who 30 years ago set about creating this school against the odds, were also there to tell their story and to receive the recognition they deserve from the learners, the staff, parents and other guests. We salute all these people for the inspiration they bring and the good they achieve.

Michelle Obama she ended her speech by saying, “Yes we can!” The young women attending Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls are well on their way to being the South African “can do” leaders of tomorrow.

The motivated women of Daveyton “did do” and created a lasting legacy of human dignity and empowerment. Clearly, when determined people decide to “do” much can be done for the good of our communities.

1 Jul 2011