Johnson Mncube remembers the first day at Oprah Winfrey's boarding school for underprivileged South African girls, when 11- and 12-year-olds were crying at the thought of being separated from their families, and he said he almost wanted to put his own daughter in his pocket and take her home.
Five years later, Mncube was joyful she stayed. On Saturday, he gazed proudly at his daughter, dressed elegantly in white for the first graduation ceremony at Winfrey's school. Bongekile Mncube is headed to the University of Johannesburg to study politics and economics, and vows to one day help "build the economy of this country."
"We are so thankful to Oprah," said her father, a pastor and small businessmen who never went to high school. "We pray that God helps her to fulfill the vision that she had."
Elgar's "Pomp and circumstance" rang out Saturday as the graduates marched in, some unsteady on new high heels. The ceremony saw cheers and tears, including Winfrey's own.
Winfrey's school is an attempt to wield philanthropy and celebrity against South Africa's social and educational crises. High-achieving students from poor families were admitted after a rigorous application process in which Winfrey was deeply involved, and she has visited regularly to counsel her girls. She held a last, late-night "pajama party" with the graduates Friday.
Winfrey told reporters after the ceremony that her girls would continue to be able to rely on her support. A counseling unit had been set up to help the graduates budget time, money and priorities in university.
In a graduation speech, Winfrey praised the teachers, administrators, social workers, psychologists and family members she said had ensured the students succeeded. Winfrey said she has learned it takes a team to support students, especially those who have experienced the poverty and personal trauma that define so many South African lives.
Winfrey said she sees the students as her daughters, and listed the blows they have experienced: "Divorce. Violence. Molestation. The loss of one parent. The loss of another parent. Sorrow. Sadness. Grief."
The first class to graduate from the school overcame adversity to see 72 of the 75 original members graduate. All 72 are headed to universities in South Africa and the United States. Across South Africa, more than half a million members of the class of 2011 disappeared before the 496,000 remaining took their final exams, and only a quarter of those who graduated did well enough to qualify for university study, according to government figures.
"I'm one proud momma today," said Winfrey, who wore eye shadow and a flowing gown in green, a school color.
Quoting Maya Angelou, she called the graduates "phenomenal, phenomenal, phenomenal women."
Graca Machel, whose husband former South African President Nelson Mandela inspired Winfrey to open the school, called on the graduates to change the world. Mandela has retired from public life and did not attend the ceremony. He attended the opening of the school in 2007.
"You are leaders," Machel said in her graduation speech. "But be humble. Listen. Learn. Try, and try again."