Oprah Scandal Rocks South Africa

  • Share
  • Read Later

Oprah Winfrey listens to a question during a video news conference about a former employee of her Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa who has been brought up on charges of abuse and sexual assault.

South Africa was forced to confront its hidden plague of sexual abuse on Monday after the full scale of a scandal at a school set up for disadvantaged girls by talk show host Oprah Winfrey was revealed.

At a bail hearing in Johannesburg, dormitory matron Tiny Virginia Makopo, 27, was charged with 13 separate counts of abuse, including indecent assault and criminal injury committed against at least six students aged 13 to 15 and a 23-year-old at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, at Henley-on-Klip outside Johannesburg. The school was established on Jan. 2 at a cost of $40 million and opened by Winfrey in a ceremony watched by Nelson Mandela, Spike Lee and Tina Turner. Winfrey personally picked the 152 students, who study and live there free of charge. Makopo, who was not asked to enter a formal plea, said she was innocent when the charges were read. The magistrate freed her on a bond of $450.

The case has prompted some introspection in South Africa. "The abuse scandal that has rocked Oprah Winfrey's South African school for girls does not reflect badly on the famous talk show host," wrote The Times, a Johannesburg newspaper, in an editorial. "It reflects badly on this nation." Sexual abuse of women and children has reached "alarming proportions" in South Africa, it said, "and it should not be surprising that it manifested itself in Oprah's school... Oprah should not be condemned for allegations made against this matron. She should be praised for her decision to aggressively deal" with it. South Africa has some of the highest incidences of child and baby rape in the world. Many children are brutalized so often that they are desensitized to the abuse being a crime. A 2002 survey by the Community of Information, Empowerment and Transparency (CIET), an international group of epidemiologists and social scientists, found 60% of both boys and girls surveyed thought it was not violence to force sex upon someone they knew, while around 11% of boys and 4% of girls admitted to forcing someone else to have sex with them.

Winfrey traveled to South Africa in Oct. 13 to investigate the allegations involving her school, aided by a team of private detectives. The school announced on Oct. 17 that a dormitory matron had been suspended over accusations of serious misconduct. It also reported the allegations to the police.

Hours after the bail hearing, Winfrey addressed a press conference on South African television via satellite link from her studio in Chicago in which she spoke about the incidence of sexual abuse in South Africa. A woman is raped every 40 seconds in this country of 44 million — a total of 55,000 rapes a year. Given those figures, said Winfrey, the school had measures in place to keep abusers out, but they had proved insufficient. Sexual abuse often "happens right in the family, [at the hands of] people they know and trust," she said, "and this was also the alleged case here." Though she said she was not responsible for hiring at the school, Winfrey said "the buck always stops with me."

"It has shaken me to my core," added Winfrey. "This has been one of the most devastating, if not the most devastating, experiences of my life... As with all such experiences, there is always something to be gained, something to be learned. At the core of me is a belief that all things happen for a reason no matter the devastation, and this too shall pass." All dorm matrons at the school had been dismissed, said Winfrey. "When I told them the dorm matrons had been removed, the girls cheered and wept, they were so happy," she added, urging the abused girls, who were receiving counseling, "to take your voices back." "What I know is is that no one — not the accused nor any persons — can destroy the dream that I have held and the dream that each girl continues to hold for herself at the school," Winfrey said. "I am prepared to do whatever is necessary to make sure that the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls becomes a safe and nurturing and enriched setting that I have envisioned, a place capable of fostering a full measure of these girls' productivity, creativity and of their humanity."