Oprah Investigates Abuse at S. African School

Police in South Africa are investigating allegations of sexual and physical abuse by a matron at the Oprah Winfrey boarding school outside Johannesburg. The school has suspended the principal and two matrons and has offered counseling to its 150 boarders.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're following up this morning on a story that began with celebrations. Oprah Winfrey opened her Leadership Academy for Girls outside Johannesburg, South Africa. But controversy has surrounded that school since it opened in January, and in recent days there have been allegations that a member of the school staff abused students.

NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault is covering this story from Johannesburg.

What is the staff member accused of doing?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, it's a little bit unclear. There are two things that have been reported in the newspapers, and one thing that the academy has responded to. One is that one of the dorm mothers or dorm matrons slammed a pupil up against the wall and throttled her, was very abusive to her. There's another allegation of fondling, but it's not clear whether this is the same student or two students. But those are the two things on the table.

INSKEEP: You said that the school has responded to one of those allegations?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, the school has said that there's an investigation underway and that it's not going to talk about the personal details of the situation right now. But when I spoke with one of the top staff people there at the school yesterday about a report that had been in the paper, he said that the substance of the article was essentially correct. Now, that's still leaves up in the air whether there was sexual abuse or just the violent throttling of the girl.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. He told you that the substance of this article was essentially correct but didn't tell you which allegation he was confirming?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, they're talking about allegations of abuse, allegations of misconduct by an adult. That's what he responded to.

INSKEEP: Oh. So the CEO, John Samuels, is the person you are referring to, I think.

HUNTER-GAULT: Yes, that's correct.

INSKEEP: You said that there have been newspaper stories. Is it front page news in South Africa?

HUNTER-GAULT: No, it's not. You know, it's inside the newspaper. This isn't the first article. In fact, from the opening of this school there have been articles about - first one, in my view, a little thing, and then another, you know, a student leaving, criticisms that they're not sensitive to the culture.

But Steve, let me also say I think it's important to look at this in a context. I mean, this is a very violent society, a hangover from its violent apartheid past. And this kind of thing is getting spotlighted because Oprah is a celebrity and it happened at her school, many people believe. But this is rampant in schools across this country. That's been confirmed in studies by agencies like the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. It takes place in a context in which one in five women in this country may be raped in her lifetime. So it needs to be seen in a context, and I think that, you know, people are saying that her school has been singled out because of her celebrity and because of the way - the celebrity way in which the school was opened.

INSKEEP: Well, what's Oprah say?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, she hasn't said very much, I mean other than the statement that's been released that she's very disappointed, she is determined to get to the bottom of this. And you know, Oprah herself, as she had said on many occasions, was also the subject of abuse as a child. So one would expect her to be sensitive, and according to all the reports I've read, she has responded in a - she's been here twice since these allegations came out, which shows some determination on her part to get to the bottom of it. No charges have been laid yet, but the people involved are not at the school any longer.

INSKEEP: NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault is in Johannesburg.

Thanks very much.

HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Steve.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.