Oprah Flies to South Africa Amid
Allegations of Sexual Misconduct at Her School
October 22, 2007
South Africa — Oprah Winfrey flew to South Africa over the weekend
for crisis meetings over allegations of sexual misconduct at her
exclusive girls’ school south of Johannesburg.
The visit, her second in less than
10 days, followed an admission last week that serious claims of
misconduct had been leveled against a matron at the school for
underprivileged girls, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for
John Samuel, the Chief Executive of
the academy, said in a brief statement that the Family Violence,
Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit (FCS) of the South African
Police Service had been informed of the internal investigation.
“The inquiry is being conducted in
a manner that supports the safe and nurturing environment of the
academy, with minimal disruption to campus life. In addition, the
academy is providing psychological support and counseling services
to our learners,” Samuel said in an official statement, the only
comment that the school has made on the affair.
The alleged perpetrator had been
removed from the campus and other measures taken to ensure the
safety and wellbeing of the pupils, he added.
Rapport, the Afrikaans-language
newspaper, reported that the matron is alleged to have grabbed a
girl by the throat and thrown her against a wall. The newspaper said
that other alleged charges were that the “dorm parent” swore and
screamed at the girls, assaulted them and had sexually fondled at
least one of them.
The alleged incidents came to light
when one of the pupils ran away from the school because the abuse
had become intolerable. Her parents informed the school immediately.
Winfrey, who herself was abused as
a child, is said to have arrived in South Africa just over a week
ago, missing an important Hollywood engagement. She then returned
unexpectedly on Friday and left again on Sunday.
She met the school’s executive and
private investigators and held a two-hour meeting with the
schoolgirls’ parents, who were flown to Johannesburg from all over
the country. A report by a private investigator flown in from the
United States to conduct an inquiry with a South African counterpart
has been handed to the police.
Winfrey issued a terse statement
saying she that was taking the incident extremely seriously.
“Nothing is more serious or devastating to me than an allegation of
misconduct by an adult against any girl at the academy,” she said in
her only comment so far on the incident.
The school, at Henley-on-Klip,
south of Johannesburg, has been beset by squabbles and sniping since
it opened its doors to 150 of the country’s poorest but brightest
girls last January.
Local people have complained that
they have been excluded from cleaning and kitchen jobs at the
school, the local police resent private companies taking care of
security and neighbors say that the imposing brick building, which
is surrounded by an electric fence, is an eyesore. Parents have
complained about over-stringent security interfering with family
Winfrey, who has no children and is
known to the girls as “Mama Oprah,” endured an impoverished
childhood in America after she was kicked out of her home by her
mother at the age of 6. She went on to become the most powerful and
richest African-American in U.S. television.
She described the opening of the
school, in which she has invested about $45 million of her
charitable foundation’s money, as “the proudest, greatest day of my
“I know when you educate a girl,
you educate a family, a community — you change the face of a
nation,” she said. “This is everything I have ever worked for.
Education is the best gift you can ever have as a kid.”
Winfrey, who helped to choose the
first entrants from about 5,000 applicants, has built a house in the
school grounds and pledged to spend as much time as possible
alongside her charges. To qualify the girls had to show academic and
leadership potential and come from families with household incomes
of less than about $711 a month.
The 28-building campus, built over
52 acres, resembles a luxury retreat rather than a school. It
contains state-of-the-art classrooms, computers and science
laboratories, a library, a theatre and a wellness center.