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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 January 2007, 11:43 GMT
Oprah opens school in S Africa
Oprah Winfrey
The school will eventually accommodate 450 girls

TV host Oprah Winfrey has opened a new school she has funded in South Africa to give an education to girls from poor families.

The school - in the small town of Henley-on-Klip south of Johannesburg - cost $40m (20m) to build.

Ms Winfrey herself interviewed many of the 3,500 South African girls from low income families who applied for an initial 150 places at the school.

The academy selects girls whose family income is less than $700 a month.

The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy will eventually cater for 450 girls who show outstanding promise but whose families cannot support their education.

At the opening ceremony, Ms Winfrey recalled her own impoverished childhood and said it was the proudest day of her life: "When you educate a girl, you begin to change the face of a nation," she declared.

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The school incorporates 28 buildings, across a 20 hectare (50 acre) site, with hi-tech classrooms, computers and science laboratories.

Ms Winfrey had promised to build the school six years ago, while visiting South Africa's former president Nelson Mandela.

"When I first started making a lot of money, I really became frustrated with the fact that all I did was write cheque after cheque to this or that charity without really feeling like it was a part of me," she told America's Newsweek magazine.

"At a certain point, you want to feel that connection," she added.

Winfrey, whose own background was disadvantaged, says she regards education as the door to freedom and she hopes these girls will be among South Africa's future leaders.

The BBC's Peter Biles in Johannesburg says that nearly all South African children now enjoy some form of schooling, but there is concern about the standard of education in some quarters.

It is reported that around half of all university under-graduates fail to complete their courses, and a serious skills shortage in the country continues to hold back the growth of the economy.

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