HENLEY-ON-KLIP  - A visibly excited Oprah Winfrey on Saturday personally congratulated the first graduates of her South African school, founded five years ago to turn a handful of impoverished girls into elite leaders.

Beaming as she exchanged hugs, jokes and celebratory cheers with green-uniformed girls ahead of Saturday’s graduation ceremony on the immaculate campus of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, Winfrey defended the idea of investing lavishly in a small group of promising young women.

Founded in 2007 with $40 million from the US talk show queen and media mogul, the school has faced criticism for focusing on a select few — there are 72 girls in the first graduating class — in a country that struggles to meet basic education needs.

“We’re investing in building leaders for this country,” Winfrey told AFP in an interview Friday.

“The only way this country and developing countries throughout the world are going to have long-term sustainability, and not just sustainability but success, is through its women. Africa will be saved by its women.”

Winfrey, whose rise to stardom and an estimated fortune of $2.7 billion followed an impoverished childhood scarred by sexual abuse and a teen pregnancy, said her career had taught her that change requires picking one’s battles.

“If you start looking at the big picture and all the things that need to be done, you will never do anything,” she said.

“You have to focus on what you can do, what you know how to do, and do that as well as anybody who’s ever lived.

“I have to focus on what goes on within these kids and these walls.

And I do the best I can with that, and then those girls go out into the world. And that’s what I try to tell them: do what you can, and that will be enough.”

She said she is also breaking the cycle of poverty for the girls, who are mostly black and come from poor families.