THE BLOG
02/09/2012 06:02 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2012

Witnessing the Start of a New Chapter in South Africa

It isn't often you witness history in the making. But about two weeks ago, thanks to Oprah Winfrey, that is exactly what happened to me in South Africa. About 30 miles south of Johannesburg, in Henley on Klip, I saw 72 young women celebrating a monumental achievement. These women, students at the now famous Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, received their high school degrees. This was nothing less than a massive milestone for the women, the Academy and the country. Because realistically, just 20 years ago such an achievement would not even have been possible, let alone likely.

Oprah Winfrey hasn't just cracked the glass ceiling for young black women in South Africa: She has shattered it. Every one of these extraordinary young graduates realizes the power and promise of an education. All 72 are heading for a quality college, either in South Africa or the United States, at institutions including Wellesley College and Stanford University.

Rewind just two decades ago. Apartheid practically destroyed any chance of success for a vast majority of people in South Africa. Among the consequences, if you were a young black girl living in a place like Soweto, you had no chance of getting any formal education, let alone earning a degree. Hence the most profound statement came from a young graduate who approached me, and without hesitation, told me that she would one day be President of South Africa. This declaration would have landed her in jail a mere 20 years ago.

No matter where you live, the reality is that knowledge is power, knowledge enables freedom and knowledge lets a person lead. It is in that pursuit that one young woman articulated it best when she said "I can't believe I'm finally free."

The valedictorian of the class, a native of a Zulu village, had never held a book in her hands prior to attending the Academy: She had only held single pages or chapters ripped from books that were shared amongst villagers. That should be an insight into the challenges still faced by this extraordinary nation.

Certainly, these young women are the lucky ones. South Africa needs many more graduates like those from Oprah's Academy. It is a country plagued by a 25 percent official unemployment rate (unofficially, many believe that the rate is closer to a devastating 40 percent). And while it is Africa's largest and most advanced economy, 70 percent of the population between the ages 18 and 24 do not have the skills to meet required job requirements, resulting in more than 800,000 unfilled job openings at companies desperate for skilled labor. And do not underestimate the knock-on effects. The lack of a skilled workforce is depriving South Africa of opportunities as many multinational companies reserve judgment about whether or not to invest in there.

South Africa is a country blessed with tremendous natural resources, yet almost half of the population lives on about $2 per day. For those lucky enough to receive a college education, unemployment is virtually non-existent, but in a country of more than 50 million people, there are less than one million college students.

Oprah Winfrey doesn't ask for any more accolades, any more praise and certainly any more publicity. She has already done it all. She came from a poor family and has enjoyed enormous successes in life. If asked, she credits her education. But something drives this extraordinary woman to always want to do more, to help more and to give more. She is strong, kind and giving. Honestly, I didn't think Oprah had a high probability for success when she first announced in 2005 that she would finance, build and ensure the success of South Africa's first all-girls high school almost 10,000 miles from home, while at the same time filming five shows a week. But I didn't realize she would spend more than $50 million of her own money, and personally ensure that every detail of these students' well-being would be taken care of to assure their success. These 72 young women had the drive, all they needed was the opportunity and support, and now their lives are changed forever. Oprah's effort in South Africa is a lesson for all of us that an education is the most powerful equalizing force in our world today. In a country of desperation on a continent that has suffered so much, it is a shining example of what hope, ambition and knowledge can achieve.

Greg Cappelli is the Co-CEO of Apollo Group (a global education services company) and Chairman of Apollo Global.