Trial to lift veil of secrecy over Oprah's African academy

Talk-show host's dream of helping poor children rocked by abuse allegations at girls' school near Johannesburg

As a talk-show queen with a $2bn fortune, a role model and mega-celebrity, Oprah Winfrey is comfortable with the limelight – except, it seems, when it comes to the school for poor girls she founded in South Africa. Her visits are shrouded in secrecy, and guests at a recent function had to sign an agreement banning cameras and camera phones.

But this week, life inside the Leadership Academy for Girls near Johannesburg, into which she has poured more than $40m (£20m), will be closely examined in court. On Tuesday, Virgina "Tiny" Makgabo, 27, a former matron at the school, faces charges of indecently assaulting minors, verbally abusing them and soliciting them to perform indecent acts. Court sources do not expect Winfrey to attend the three-day trial.

Reports alleged the matron or "dormitory parent" grabbed a girl by the throat and threw her against a wall. Ms Makgabo was accused of swearing and shouting at girls and fondling at least one pupil. The allegations surfaced last October, when a student ran away from the school, claiming the situation had become intolerable.

The accusations have proved an embarrassment for Winfrey, who has since made regular discreet visits to the school to reassure parents. Information has been closely controlled: no telephone numbers appear on the school's website. Winfrey has said little about the affair, and parents have been warned against speaking to the media.

The case is an unhappy contrast to the high-profile opening of the academy in January 2007, when Winfrey received congratulatory messages from Nelson Mandela, among others. He was credited with getting her involved in education in South Africa, after she staged a series of Christmas shows for poor children three years before.

The result was a campus on 52 acres in Henley-on-Klip, south of Johannesburg. Girls whose parents earn less than £350 a month can apply for places. The benefactor claimed it would be a "model school for the rest of the world".

But the philanthropy has come at a price. When the abuse accusations first surfaced, Winfrey said: "Nothing is more serious ... than an allegation of misconduct by an adult against any girl at the academy. I will do everything ... to ensure their safety." On a school visit two weeks later, she told parents: "I've disappointed you. I'm so sorry"

Winfrey herself suffered abuse as a child by a cousin, uncle and family friend – experiences she has shared with her TV audiences.

She says she does not regret opening the academy, telling a music station: "From the very first half hour, after I was able to pull myself together, I knew that this too shall pass. And the girls are now fine. The school is going to be better because that happened."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'