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Oprah 'shaken' by school sex claims

Sapa and M&G Online reporters, Mail & Guardian Online reporter, Reuters and Sapa, Sapa-AFP

United States television magnate Oprah Winfrey said on Monday that abuse charges at her all-girl academy in Johannesburg was one of the most devastating experiences in her life. "This has been one of the most devastating, if not the most devastating, experiences of my life," she said in a video news conference from Chicago.

United States television magnate Oprah Winfrey said on Monday that abuse charges at her all-girl academy in Johannesburg was one of the most devastating experiences in her life.

“This has been one of the most devastating, if not the most devastating, experiences of my life,” she said in a video news conference from Chicago. “It has shaken me to my core.”

A former dormitory matron charged with abusing students at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls was freed on R3 000 bail on Monday after a brief court appearance.

Virginia Mokgobo (27) left the Sebokeng Magistrate’s Court, south of Johannesburg, with a jacket over her head. The case was postponed to December 13 to allow for further investigations.

She was arrested on Thursday on charges including assault, indecent assault and soliciting under-age girls to perform indecent acts. The charge sheet also mentioned a 23-year-old woman as one of the alleged victims.

At least seven victims have already submitted statements, police said. Magistrate Thelman Simpson ordered on Monday that the names and photographs of the complainants not be published.

Investigation

In the video news conference, Winfrey said she had launched a private investigation into the charges, sending an American investigations team to the school to interview staff and students.

Systems at the school had failed the girls there, Winfrey said. “Not the school, but the systems within the school failed the girls.”

She acknowledged that the screening processes for employees at the school were inadequate and said these would be revised.

She also said she had not renewed the head mistress’s contract. “We are removing the dorm parents, and as I have said to the girls, [we are] cleaning house from top to bottom.”

Short, of medium build and looking young for her age, Makgobo wore a black T-shirt and green skirt in the dock. She restlessly touched her face and hair as she said she was “not guilty” when the charges were read.

State prosecutor advocate Alta Nieuwoudt asked for bail to be set at R5 000 considering the charges against Makgobo and because her position at the school was one of trust. “The allegations and charges against you are very serious,” said Nieuwoudt. “These kind of offences are very prevalent in this court.”

Makgobo was granted R3 000 bail after she told the court that she could not afford R5 000. Simpson said the court considered Makgobo’s personal circumstances and what was affordable for her.

Security was tight and those entering the court were thoroughly searched.

Winfrey on Monday praised students who came forward to report the alleged abuse as exhibiting the kind of leadership qualities she hoped to foster in the school. “My experience with child predators is that no one ever, ever abuses just one child,” she said.

Misconduct

According to Rapport newspaper, Mokgobo, formerly a matron at the school, allegedly fondled one of the pupils, and grabbed a girl by the throat and threw her against a wall. The report said other school employees were also implicated in misconduct.

The newspaper said Winfrey flew to South Africa to meet parents and school administrators. A tearful Winfrey asked parents to forgive her for letting them down, it quoted a parent, who attended one of the meetings, as saying.

“I’ve disappointed you. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” Winfrey is said to have told the parents.

The $40-million academy has been dogged by controversy since it opened in January with a star-studded launch attended by singers Mariah Carey, Tina Turner and Mary J Blige, comedian Chris Rock, actor Sydney Poitier and filmmaker Spike Lee.

In March, some parents complained the school was too strict and its restrictions on visits, phone calls and email contact were comparable to prison rules. Then, in May, some parents complained their children were not allowed junk food and when they visited the school they had to go through a security gate.

Tuition and board is free at the residential school. The academy provides its 450 students with textbooks, uniforms and meals.

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