They waited in anticipation for a “special guest”, as per the announcement by the host, US ambassador to South Africa Patrick Gaspard. They had no idea that Oprah Winfrey was about to walk into the conference room.
When the queen of TV talk shows entered from the backstage area, they erupted in joyous screams. Their Mam’ Oprah, as they affectionately call her, walked into the conference room at the Premier Hotel at OR Tambo International Airport in Ekurhuleni.
One would think Winfrey is used to joyous screams from fans and audiences, but she was overwhelmed by the love that the young attendants showered her with.
Almost with a South African accent, she said, “Tjo!”, reacting to the 250 girls and young women who are supported by Dreams – Determined, Resilient, Empowered, Aids-free, Mentored and Safe – a US initiative that aims to reduce new HIV infections in adolescents and young women in 10 sub-Saharan African countries, including South Africa.
In South Africa, the Dreams initiative focuses on priority areas – Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal – as these provinces have the highest HIV infection rate.
In South Africa, adolescent girls (aged 15 to 19) are eight times more likely to be infected with HIV than their male counterparts. Young women (20 to 24) are three times more likely to be infected than young men of the same age group.
An inspiring success story Winfrey’s life story – from growing up in an impoverished Mississippi town where she was raped at a young age, falling pregnant and losing the baby, to being the queen of talk shows with her own TV network – inspires young women to look beyond their past and difficult circumstances.
Winfrey poured her heart out to the audience. She told them about her religious upbringing, which she said was her pillar and strength, and how she climbed the ladder of success.
“I grew up in the church. My grandmother led me to the sense of God and made me believe there was a greater force than me. I grew up believing that God was my father and Jesus was my brother, which meant I could do anything in life.
“In life you cannot trust yourself only, there must be some higher force you trust in, be it God, the community or an organisation, because you cannot be successful on your own,” she told the girls, adding that their history and past experiences – no matter how unfortunate – should not define their future.
“What you do today and where you see yourself is what matters.
“You need to know what kind of woman you want to be and where you want to be, not just in terms of profession, but in life. Life will lead you where you want to go ... People pay attention to people who excel and excellence is a deterrent for sexism,” Winfrey said.
The audience was given an opportunity to ask questions, many of which centred on how to keep young girls motivated and what they could learn from her success story.