Celebrity American philanthropist and international media icon Oprah Winfrey has described the transformation of the University of the Free State as “nothing short of a miracle”.
The university’s chancellor, Dr Khotso Mokhele, returned the favour, saying the excitement in Bloemfontein on Friday ahead of the talk show host receiving an honorary doctorate was matched only by the excitement when Nelson Mandela visited the Free State capital after being released from prison.
“I want to express my gratitude to (vice-chancellor and rector) Professor (Jonathan) Jansen and the role you play in this campus,” Mokhele said.
“It is partly because of things that happened before you came here and things that you did after in a short period that this university would appeal to Oprah Winfrey.”
The miracle that Winfrey, who received the university’s highest honour for her role in promoting education, was referring to was the racism incident that shocked the world when four students at the then Reitz residence filmed five hostel cleaners workers eating food that the students had apparently urinated into.
“Having read and seen what Professor Jansen has done here and what has happened to the victims of the racial incident, reconciliation and integration is nothing short of a miracle,” she said to a standing ovation inside a packed Callie Human Centre.
“It is in a tone of what South Africa is about. I really do believe what happened here falls in the category of amazing.”
Winfrey, who Mokhele had introduced as “Doctor Queen of Tears” in reference to the content of her syndicated talk shows, wept on stage as the university orator read out her achievements and the official citation for the her honorary degree.
She said she had been thinking about the history of South Africa.
“As I stood on this stage part of what I was thinking about was the people of this country to whose colour is like mine that made it possible for an African American woman to stand here and receive an honorary doctorate from this university,” she said. “I think of the lives of those who came here before me. As I am standing here I am thinking how did this happen?”
Winfrey told the cheering crowd that what had happened to the workers in forgiving the four former Reitz students after their experience was “the opening of (their) heart space”.
“If they were able to do that,” she said referring to the workers forgiving the Reitz four, “that makes it possible for you to do the same”.
“They are the heroes and heroines of the Free State.”
The former cleaners at the university who were humiliated in the racist video were invited onto the stage to share a moment with Winfrey. “I felt so proud today,” said one of the women, Emma Koko. “She (Winfrey) hugged all of us (the workers) and hailed us in front of everyone as heroes. It was a special moment ...we have never felt so important in our lives.”
Only one of the four former Reitz students, Danie Grobler, was present at the ceremony.
He was working as an usher for the guests, but he was not introduced to the crowd.
After the academic programme, Winfrey returned to the stage in an orange skirt and pink blouse to talk to the audience and take questions from students.
She spoke for over an hour – on how she put her talk shows together, using videos of women who inspired her in life.
She shared her story of growing up in poverty and how she became “a self-made woman” and told the crowd that the university aroused her interest after she read an article by Jansen on not accepting mediocrity. – Pretoria News (Additional reporting by Sapa)