BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa – Oprah Winfrey accepted an honorary degree from a central South African university infamous for troubled race relations, saying the institution had turned an ugly experience into a model for confronting the challenges of reconciliation and remorse.
Winfrey on Friday came to a school where, five years ago, four White students made a video humiliating Black housekeeping staff—they are shown eating a stew the students had mimed spiking with urine—and expressing opposition to integrating the historically White University of the Free State. Jonathan Jansen, who in 2009 became the university’s first Black rector, called for the four to be forgiven and rehabilitated.
Jansen withstood accusations he was conceding too much to racists as he led the university, the students, and the cleaners in a closely watched discussion of the role forgiveness could play in post-apartheid South Africa. In a campus ceremony earlier this year, the students’ public apology was accepted by the cleaners.
After receiving her honorary education doctorate Friday, Winfrey called five cleaners to the stage and pronounced them heroes.
“What has happened here at Free State in terms of racial reconciliation, of peace, of harmony, of one heart understanding and opening itself to another heart is nothing short of a miracle,” she said. “It is truly what the new South Africa is all about.”
Winfrey said she had approached Jansen after reading about his work and accepted an invitation to come to speak to students. University officials decided to make it a grand event.
A roar from hundreds of people gathered outside first alerted those inside the university auditorium that Winfrey was about to enter for a ceremony for one that offered as much pomp, circumstance, song and dance as a full class graduation. She threw her arms out with joy when told she was now a member of the university family—a “Kovsie.” Other moments moved her to tears.
Winfrey kneeled on a padded stool to have her degree bestowed, flashing red stiletto heels to the cheering audience of all races.
The event brought international media to normally quiet Bloemfontein, the farming center where the century-old, 31,000-student university is based.
Susan Mshumpela, a 37-year-old Bloemfontein native, came to the ceremony proudly dressed in the black robes she wore when she accepted her MBA from Free State last year. Mshumpela, operations manager for an agency that helps small businesses, said she hoped Winfrey’s visit would give her alma mater a chance to tell the world about its strengths.
“The eyes of the world are here,” she said. “I don’t think a person of her stature could just accept an honorary degree from just any university. She would want to be associated with a university of stature.’”
Nadipha Jacobs, a Black student, says the university is growing more tolerant.
“In many ways, I feel the university and its people have grown,” said Jacobs, who started as an undergraduate in 1996 and now is a graduate student specializing in development studies.
Chantell De Reuck, a White graduate student strolling across campus Friday with her friend Jacobs, said the divides that are healing weren’t just along racial lines. When she arrived as an undergraduate in 1999, she was among only six English-speaking students in a dorm dominated by Afrikaners, descendants of early Dutch settlers who speak Afrikaans. The English students stuck together then. Not now, De Reuck said.
De Reuck said Black and White students at the university can connect to Winfrey’s personal story of early years of struggle and abuse and find inspiration in her current success.
A 4,500-seat auditorium was full for Winfrey’s ceremony. Tickets were sold for 10 rand (about $1), most of that covering computer sales processing fees. Local reporters said hawkers selling fake tickets on Bloemfontein streets didn’t increase the price. University officials warned those with fake tickets that they would not be admitted.
Winfrey is a frequent visitor to South Africa, where she opened a school in 2007 dedicated to giving bright young women of all races opportunities in a society where they are handicapped by conservative traditions as well as the poor schools that are a legacy of apartheid.
Her school’s first class just graduated, overcoming early setbacks that included a scandal over a dormitory supervisor accused of trying to kiss and fondle students. The supervisor was acquitted of sexual assault charges last year.
In a passage that drew cheers from the audience Friday, the citation accompanying Winfrey’s honorary doctorate, the 152nd awarded by the university, said Winfrey “has truly become a South African.
“She did so because she believed that there was important work to be done here, and she wanted to be part of what Nelson Mandela and others had begun.”
Previous recipients of Free State honorary degrees include anti-apartheid icons Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Winfrey’s visit overlapped with that of another famous Chicagoan—Michelle Obama, wife of the U.S. president. The two had dinner together on Tuesday in Johannesburg.