The dead baby PR disaster

At the risk of earning the ire of self-help devotees everywhere I have to admit it: I’m just not an Oprah fan.

But before you start counting to 10 and invoking Doctor Phil to exorcise your anger towards me, hear me out.

Generally at this point in the Great Oprah Debate, after I’ve slated the relentless narcissism (EVERY magazine cover? Really?), medical quackery or laughable posturing over Africa “the motherland”, the Oprah-ite will accusingly ask if I’ve ever watched her show.

Sure I have. But I simply can’t stomach her inconsistent interviewing style and knack for making everything about herself.

Yet even I feel sorry for Oprah after the PR disaster her Leadership Academy for Girls has become.

The elite school in the south of Johannesburg was officially opened in 2007 with 152 carefully selected girls — all academic go-getters from dire backgrounds. The kind of children who didn’t have a hope in hell and who probably went home to a tin shack to study by candlelight — if they had the luxury of being allowed time to study at all. The sort of thing that reminded Oprah of her own disadvantaged upbringing.

But the school has been dogged by one controversy after the other since its opening, despite the impressive PR attempt to spin even the Wikipedia entry on the school.

Sexual abuse claims rocked the academy in 2007, making its way to court in a damagingly high-profile case for the talk show queen.

The school principal was then fired but she later sued for defamation, and settled out of court with Oprah.

In March 2009, four pupils were expelled and another three suspended for alleged “inappropriate behaviours”.

You wouldn’t think news could get any worse for the beleaguered school. I mean, what could be more horrifying than sexual abuse? Try throwing a dead baby into the mix.

That’s right, a dead baby, discovered clandestinely hidden in a pupil’s bag after she was admitted to a hospital for excessive bleeding. She is thought to have given birth by herself at the school.

Do other schools have sexual abuse claims? Expelled students? Teenage pregnancies? It goes without saying. But anything associated with brand Oprah gets multiplied exponentially. We won’t bat an eyelid or devote even a hidden news page to those incidents at any other school, but we expect so much more from Oprah.

Because, along with the high-thread count cotton sheets, yoga studio and beauty salon she controversially provided to these girls, Oprah promised a haven from a cruel world.

But how does one protect young women from a violent society? You can police the schools gates, as Oprah so capably and stridently did, but you can’t police the devastating effects of a broken social order on the girls themselves.

An American friend who has lived in South Africa for a long time commented on the state of affairs for Oprah. “She’s trying to control everything the way you would in the US.”

Oprah has no doubt brought in all sorts of security and educational experts to build a perfect bubble for her pupils. “But she just doesn’t understand how these girls’ backgrounds has affected them,” concluded my friend. “She can’t.”

In an attempt to separate these young would-be leaders from their damaging circumstances Oprah introduced extremely stringent visiting rules.

In keeping with the style of a woman who has been able to control so much, Oprah ruled that the pupils would have very limited visits and interaction with their families during school terms.

The rules probably sounded like a great idea to the Americans involved, but it ignored the fact that most pupils hailed from large extended families. Allowing limited visiting time with family meant that some girls saw key members of their family only once a month — and this for girls as young as 12.

It seems the more Oprah tries to control the pupils at her school, the more things spin out of control. “This is Africa,” some may say hopelessly, and sympathetically, to Oprah. But a little less idealism and a little more realistic engagement with the issues of the country would go a long way.

The woman who romantically alighted in Africa and declared herself at home and one with its people, said of her inspiration for the school: “If you are a child in the United States, you can get an education. … I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there. … If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod, sneakers, or some money. In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.”

When I first read the quote I wanted to believe that our young people were that good, that noble. But the simple truth is that they’re human — like their American counterparts. They get nasty. They get pregnant. They get greedy. And to ignore that, to treat South African disadvantaged youth as some glorified noble savage who transcends Western materialism, is to make a dangerous assumption.

That assumption is in part what has lead Oprah to her present crisis. To date her solution has been more PR. Like the Wikipedia entry on the school, her team will keep trying to exercise more control and more security to fix the situation. But, like a bicycle that has careened off a cliff, pedalling harder isn’t going to slow your descent. Expect more disasters from Oprah’s Academy, and others like it, until she can bring herself to really understand these girls and their situations, beyond meaningless stereotypes.

  • You can read Verashni’s column every Monday here, and follow her on Twitter here.

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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