6 November 2007

South Africa: Oprah Promises to Restore Dignity in School

Johannesburg — American talk show host Oprah Winfrey has promised to do everything in her power to restore dignity at her leadership academy.

Ms Winfrey addressed the media via satellite in Johannesburg on Monday after allegations of indecent assault surfaced at her Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls which was opened earlier this year in the south of the city.

The briefing occurred only hours after 27-year-old, Tiny Virginia Makopo, who was a dorm matron, appeared at the Sebokeng Magistrate's Court.

Ms Makopo, who was granted R3000 bail, faces 13 charges of indecent assault, assault and criminal injury committed against six girls aged between 13 and 15-years-old, and a 23-year-old girl. The case has been postponed to 13 December.

"There is nothing more devastating to me than these allegations of misconduct against Ms Makopo by these young girls at my school. I will do everything in my power to ensure the girls' safety and wellbeing is restored," an emotional Ms Winfrey said.

She said her school and pupils would not be let down by the recent controversy despite the staff who initially decided to keep the allegations secret from her.

"No matter what these kids have endured, I will make sure that they would not be diminished by these events.

"The girls were brave and acted because their voices were not being heard. They used their voice and the truth has been prevailed today," she said.

At least 15 girls at the school approached the academy's Chief Executive Officer John Samuel regarding their grievances in early October 2007.

Mr Samuel said on receiving information, they immediately removed Ms Makopo from the campus and notified the police's Child Protection Unit.

"We immediate took action as it is the academy's objective to operate in the best interests of the children," Mr Samuel said.

He said after the allegations, the school had appointed investigators from South Africa and the United States to conduct a fair and impartial inquiry into the claims.

The inquiry was conducted in a manner that supported the safe and nurturing environment to the academy, with minimal disruption to campus life, he added.

On receiving the devastating news, Ms Winfrey flew to South Africa where she personally spoke to the girls.

She said her first priority was to know how many girls were affected and to what extend was there a problem.

On 14 October, she met with the girls and their parents and apologised, highlighting the necessary steps she will take to address the problem.

Ms Winfrey said: "No one can destroy my dream for the school and I will do anything necessary to make sure that this school will be the model of the world."

In 2002, following the request of former president Nelson Mandela, Ms Winfrey donated $10 million to build the academy at Henley on Klip, in Meyerton, in the Vaal region.

On delivering her speech at the time she said: "...I believe education gives young people a greater voice in their own lives and helps them to create a brighter future for their communities and themselves."

The 26-building campus which boasts, a library, a gym, a hostel and a theatre was built to accommodate 450 learners from Grade seven to 12.

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