Oprah Winfrey's Leadership Academy Investigated

The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in Johannesburg, South Africa, is being rocked by allegations of abuse. Sowetan reporter Gertrude Makhafola explains the facts of the case and takes listeners inside the investigation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, race matters when it comes to who next leads Trinidad and Tobago.

But first, word from one of our anchor buddies, a reporter who helps us understand news breaking elsewhere in the world.

Today, we go to South Africa where there are disturbing reports about the school launched by television personality and philanthropist, Oprah Winfrey.

As you may recall, Oprah launched her Leadership Academy for Girls in January amid great fanfare. The school is intended to provide state-of-the-art free education for girls deemed to have leadership potential. Many of them from low-income homes. But reports have surfaced that at least one adult at the school is alleged to have physically and sexually assaulted a student.

Joining us from her office in Johannesburg is Getrude Makhafola. She's been covering the story for the newspaper, The Sowetan.

Getrude, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MS. GETRUDE MAKHAFOLA (Journalist, The Sowetan): Thank you.

MARTIN: Has law enforcement investigated the allegations? Have any been - any charges been made in this case?

Ms. MAKHAFOLA: Yes. Two days after the report, the police confirmed that the case has been opened against the dorm parent and that it involves mistreatment of a girl child there. Apparently, the child was grabbed by the neck and thrown against the wall by the dorm parent and fondled in an uncomfortable way. That's what they said.

MARTIN: You reported, though, on one of your stories that we don't even know the gender of the dorm parent. How is that possible? Is it that the press rules in South Africa don't permit that kind of information to be known at this stage of an investigation, or is it that the school is very secretive? How is it possible that so little is known?

Ms. MAKHAFOLA: You know, the school have safeguarded the information, but I asked a parent and she told me on record that dormitory parents there are females. There are no males.

MARTIN: Has the school made any public response to these allegations?

Ms. MAKHAFOLA: The dorm parent has been suspended pending for the investigation. Apparently, they have called in the Child Protection Unit as well, to counsel the kids there.

MARTIN: The alleged victim of the abuse by the person who is now under investigation - do you know anything about her on whether she is - remained at the school or how she is - anything of that sort?

Ms. MAKHAFOLA: You mean, the child?

MARTIN: The child. Yes.

Ms. MAKHAFOLA: No. We have no idea.

MARTIN: It's been reported that Oprah Winfrey made, not one but two, emergency visits to the school in the wake of this incident. Is that true?

Ms. MAKHAFOLA: Yes. She had a meeting with the parents and told them that she would do everything she can to make sure that this doesn't happen again at her school.

MARTIN: You spoke to the father of one of the girls who has left the school since its opening. What did he tell you about the conditions at the school and how things were going there?

Ms. MAKHAFOLA: I, myself, have never been to the school. But he told me that it's got the best facilities. I mean, it's top of the class. And he told me that the only problem that he has with the school is the people running the school. He's been through - I can see - hell, so to speak, because he wanted to take out the child for the weekend at home so that the child recuperates.

MARTIN: Are you saying that the child was ill and he took her home so that she could recover?

Ms. MAKHAFOLA: Yeah. He was planning to take her back to school on Sunday. But then, when he took her back on Monday morning and apparently he was send away with the child.

MARTIN: So the child was forced to withdraw because of this?

Ms. MAKHAFOLA: Yeah. She's now at the public school, the school that she was previously before she attended Oprah's school.

MARTIN: Before all these happened, how do you think the academy was viewed both locally within the community in, which is located in farther afield on the country. I know that Nelson Mandela was among the dignitaries who attended the opening. There was a lot of excitement. But there was also some controversy too. Some people thought it was too lavish, the facility itself perhaps too imposing. How do you think that the school is viewed before these abuse allegations surfaced?

Ms. MAKHAFOLA: When Oprah decided to build the school, everyone was happy. And I remember most of the parents wished that they had girls to be able to attend that school as well.

MARTIN: And do people still feel that way?

Ms. MAKHAFOLA: The people who are there see it as, kind of, like, a prison, so to speak, because they don't see their children. It feels like, it's some island for them. We think that village, so to speak, an island.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. And as to the specific allegations that a child was mistreated, is this considered an isolated incident in South Africa or have there been other schools where there have been some issues?

Ms. MAKHAFOLA: It's not an isolated incident. We've had incidents of self-abuse. We have a problem of that - of children being abused (unintelligible) communities. And it's an ongoing thing.

MARTIN: So, what are the next steps? What happens now?

Ms. MAKHAFOLA: I'm told that Oprah has put U.S. investigators as well. So, we're waiting for them to finish the investigation.

MARTIN: And finally, do you believe that this scandal is undermining support for the academy, or are people still happy that it's there for the most part?

Ms. MAKHAFOLA: People are happy that it's there. As to how it's going to pan out, as time goes on, I wonder as to whether anything in 2008 if parents are going to be free to release their kids to attend the school. I think that will also depend on the outcome of the investigation.

MARTIN: Getrude Makhafola is a reporter for The Sowetan newspaper. She joined us from her office in Johannesburg.

Getrude, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. MAKHAFOLA: Thank you. A pleasure.

MARTIN: And late word today from another newspaper in South Africa. The man who says his daughter made the first allegations of abuse at the academy states that his child is now back home attending her old school.

Meanwhile, Oprah Winfrey is back in Chicago. She hasn't commented beyond her written statement. That statement says, quote, "nothing is much serious or devastating to me than an allegation of misconduct by an adult against any girl at the academy."

The academy in South Africa has suspended the principal and two other employees pending the investigation.

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