Fred Bridgland, The Scotsman (Edinburgh), October 23, 2007
Hollywood gossip columnists were puzzled by the absence last week of television talkshow queen Oprah Winfrey from her friend Julia Robert’s gala cinematic tribute.
Now it has emerged that Winfrey—the richest woman in entertainment—flew into Johannesburg last Friday to deal with the latest scandal at the problem-plagued school for under-privileged girls she established this year with £20 million of her own money.
Two members of staff at the 150-pupil Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls have been suspended as Winfrey’s own investigative team, headed by a former Chicago police officer, and the South African Police child protection unit, investigate pupils’ allegations of assault and sexual misconduct.
The opening of the school, set in beautiful grounds at Henley-on-Klip, 30 miles south of Johannesburg, in January this year was attended by a celebrity-packed cast of Winfrey’s international and local friends, including Nobel laureates, ambassadors, musicians, actors and media personalities.
“This school will provide opportunities to some of our young people they could never imagine, had it not been for Oprah,” said former South African president Nelson Mandela at its opening.
“The key to any country’s future is in educating its youth. Oprah is not only investing in a few young individuals, but in the future of our country.
“This is a lady who, despite her own disadvantaged background, has become a benefactor of the disadvantaged throughout the world and we should congratulate her for that,” he added.
Winfrey’s Chicago-led team and the South African police imposed a veil of silence as their investigations into events at the school continued yesterday.
However, two major South African newspapers, the Sunday Independent and the Afrikaans-language Rapport, said an employee been accused of sexually molesting at least one girl and of assaulting at least one other.
The newspapers said the alleged misconduct came to light when a girl ran away from the school and told her parents the abuse had become intolerable.
Girls also complained that John Samuel, chief executive officer of the academy, had ignored their many complaints about staff conduct.
Mr Samuel telephoned Winfrey late last week and she ordered the investigations. Mr Samuel said counselling services had been provided to many pupils.
Among specific charges known to have been made against the member of staff, according to the two newspapers, are that she habitually swore and screamed at the children, assaulted the girls and indecently fondled at least one of them. She is also alleged to have choked one girl before throwing her against a wall.
Superintendent Andre Neethling, head of the police child protection unit in the Johannesburg region, said he had received a report from Winfrey’s investigative team, consisting mainly of interviews with pupils. As yet, no decision had been made on whether charges would be laid, he added.
Parents were flown to the school last Saturday at Winfrey’s expense to be briefed by the TV talk hostess on what she believed had been happening.
Winfrey said in a statement that she would do everything in her power to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the girls. “Nothing,” she said, “is more serious or devastating to me than an allegation of misconduct by an adult against any girl at the academy.” She added that no more information would be released until her investigation and that of the police were completed.
Mr Samuel said: “Out of respect for all our learners, privacy and confidentiality remain paramount.
“Therefore, we will not disclose any personal information or details of the allegation.”
THE ACADEMY NO-ONE LIKES
During a 2004 visit to South Africa, Oprah Winfrey was asked by Nelson Mandela if she would provide support to children whose parents were too poor to afford education. The result was the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.
Winfrey interviewed 3,500 girls from every race group—white, black, Indian and mixed race—to fill the 150 places, all for boarders. Only those whose parents earned less than £350 a month were eligible.
Within two months of its opening, parents were complaining that the academy’s rules were so strict they made a reform school look like a holiday resort. They said the school made it difficult for them to maintain contact with their children. The school responded by saying parents could visit only once a month, instead of once a fortnight. Mobile phone and e-mail contact between parents and children was banned, except at weekends.
Local people say they have been excluded from cleaning and kitchen jobs at the school, and the local police are known to resent private companies taking care of security. Meanwhile, neighbours say the brick building, surrounded by an electric fence, is an eyesore.