By DONNA BRYSON, Associated Press
BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa – A central South African university known for fraught race relations awarded an honorary education doctorate to Oprah Winfrey Friday, and her visit was welcomed as an acknowledgment of the progress the institution has made toward tolerance.
A roar from hundreds of people gathered outside first alerted those inside the University of the Free State 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’s 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.
She kneeled on a padded stool to have her degree bestowed, flashing red stiletto heels to the cheering audience.
The event brought international media to normally quiet Bloemfontein, the farming center where the century-old university is based.
In 2006, four white Free State students made a video humiliating black cleaning women and expressing opposition to integrating the historically white school. Jonathan Jansen, who in 2009 became the university’s first black rector, has been credited with bringing change.
Nadipha Jacobs, a black student, says the university is growing more tolerant, and that the visit from the world’s most recognizable black businesswoman shows that.
“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.
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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 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.
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