The Oprah School on Trial

The Daily Beast

An exclusive report on the sexual abuse case that tarnished Oprah’s South African School—and an interview with the dorm matron at the center of the scandal.

In the moments before her trial resumes, Tiny Makopo, a former dormitory matron at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, is sending text messages and listening to the hushed chatter of her friends. She’s in Courtroom No. 3 of the magistrate’s court in Sebokeng, South Africa, a flat, ugly, dusty town about a 90-minute drive from Johannesburg.

The courtroom is shabby, but Makopo’s trial has put it onto the world stage. The 28-year-old is accused of indecently assaulting and abusing six young pupils at Winfrey’s girls’ school. Those accusations have rattled the talk-show host’s philanthropic efforts in this country, and changed many lives forever.

Makopo is indeed tiny, about 5’1”. She has child-like feet, and small hands with teeny fingernails. Her hair is relaxed and bobbed; she has short bangs, which make her round face appear even rounder. For her day in court, Makopo wears what amounts to a dress-up outfit for a poor, black woman in South Africa: a black zip-up jacket over a white T-shirt with a discreet Adidas logo, a black stretchy skirt and black suede penny-loafers with no socks. She fiddles with a black vinyl clutch bag with a plastic rhinestone on the clasp.

The criminal charges against her are shocking. In one count, Makopo is alleged to have pushed a girl against a wall and strangled her with her thumbs on the child’s wind pipe. Other allegations include trying to kiss a 13-year-old with an open mouth, and putting the child’s hands on her own breasts. Makopo is accused of getting into the bed of a 14-year-old at night, and rubbing her breast against the child’s. She allegedly pushed a 14-year-old onto a couch and then forced her to eat pudding, which she also rubbed into the girl’s hair. And she allegedly verbally abused a 13-year-old girl, calling her a “bitch” and a “prostitute.”

Makopo has pleaded not guilty to all 14 counts. If convicted, she faces a minimum sentence of 10 years. Representatives for Oprah Winfrey declined to comment to The Daily Beast, citing a court request “not to discuss circumstances related to the trial until its conclusion.”

The scandal has undoubtedly tarnished the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, located about 20 miles northeast of this court in the hamlet of Henley-on-Klip. The $40-million state-of-the-art campus opened in January 2007, the fulfillment of an earlier promise Winfrey had made to former South African president Nelson Mandela. The sheer opulence of the school captivated South Africans still reeling from apartheid, and more than 3,000 girls clamored for a spot. Nearly all of the 152 students selected came from poor backgrounds, and some from families living in shacks with no electricity or indoor plumbing. The buzz made the rounds in the townships about this special, beautiful school that would educate South African girls, and help them uplift their families out of poverty.

The allegations against Makopo came to light in October of last year, when a group of girls approached the school’s CEO, John Samuels. On November 5, Oprah Winfrey appeared live via satellite on a 10-foot television screen at a South African hotel. She told journalists she had been “shaken to the core,” and called the Makopo incident “one of the most devastating—if not the most devastating—experience of my entire life.” The news made tabloid headlines around the world, a grim case of do-gooding apparently gone wrong.

But among South Africans, the “Oprah school scandal” has been greeted with a shrug. It’s not that the public is averse to tabloid news. It’s just that the charges against Makopo have been swallowed by the horrific headlines we read every day. As Makopo was in court on Friday, a story crossed the wires about the trial of two men accused of raping and murdering three school girls in a field behind a shopping mall in Mamelodi, near the country’s capital. The bodies of the three girls were found “hogtied,” with their hands and feet bound behind their backs. They were all sexually assaulted. They had bite marks over their bodies, some of them from ants. This was considered an unremarkable news item.

“The reality is the charges I charged Makopo with are very minor offenses compared with the other things I do,” said state prosecutor Etienne Venter, who has been prosecuting sexual offenses in South Africa’s courts since 2000. “Yesterday in here I had an 11-year-old testify that she had been raped. I’ve had a 5-year-old testify about her rape—really all ages, from 5 to 72.”
So far, Makopo’s trial has moved in fits and starts. It began this summer, suspended for two months, and resumed again last Wednesday, October 22. Since her arrest last November, Makopo has been required to stay within a 50-mile radius of this courtroom. For now she lives up the road with her friend Lebo, whom she met while working at Oprah’s school, and who is one of four friends supporting her here today.

Winfrey told journalists she had been “shaken to the core,” and called the Makopo incident “one of the most devastating—if not the most devastating—experience of my entire life.”

Everyone rises when magistrate Thelma Simpson enters the courtroom just after 9:00 a.m on Friday. Simpson calls for the courtroom to be cleared. Because she is charged with assaulting minors, proceedings will continue in camera. Brown paper has been taped on the windows of the corridor. Today, the third of six girls will testify from a separate room, on closed circuit TV, so she will not have to face Makopo.

With Makopo inside the closed courtroom, I talked to her friends who had wandered outside for a smoke break. Until this whole thing blew up, Lebo, 24, worked weekends as a hairdresser at Oprah’s school.

“Working only three days a week, I earned more than $200 a month!” Lebo tells me. “It was such a great job. I wish I could get a job like that again, but I probably never will.”

The unemployment rate here tops 40 percent, and many survive on government grants of less than $100 a month. After the allegations surfaced, Lebo says, most employees at Oprah’s school were told their jobs were suspended.

“I was so surprised when I heard about Tiny,” says Lebo. “But my boss said we need to stick by her through this. Other people, they didn’t stick by her. No one is on her side because they’re hoping to get their jobs back.”

I look over and see that Makopo has come out of the courtroom to join us. She nods to me and greets her friends in Sesotho, the lingua franca among black South Africans in this mostly-poor region. Makopo bums a Stuyvesant cigarette from a friend and lights it in a cupped hand. When she draws on it, her cheeks hollow.

Her friends ask how it’s going inside. Makopo says, “Sharp, sharp,” a colloquial term that means “just fine.” She asks me which newspaper I am from. I try to explain The Daily Beast. She says: “I think the news stories are just saying the same things, over and over.” Then she goes quiet.

Makopo smokes the cigarette down into the butt, until a friend says it’s gross and makes her put it out. It’s time to go back inside.

Anti-violence and women’s groups commend Winfrey for acting with such alacrity as soon as she heard about the allegations, and for publicly commending the girls for their bravery. But among some South Africans, there’s a hope that this case won’t reach a fever pitch. There’s almost a fear that if the trial ends without a conviction, Winfrey will take her millions elsewhere. Outside the court, a uniformed police officer who would not give his name shook his head when I asked him about the case. “It’s not a big case,” he said. “But because it is Oprah, it is bigger.” He opens his hands wide. “Because that’s what happens when people have money.”

Today, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls remains in session—with nearly all of the same girls and mostly all-new staff. At the press conference last year, Winfrey said the school would “redefine what the [dorm matron] position should mean and what the qualifications will be in the future.” She provided the girls with trauma counseling, and reiterated her commitment to make the school a safe environment. “I am a mama bear when it comes to protecting my children,” she said.

Only Makopo and the young women involved can say exactly what happened at the school. Certainly, if Makopo did do these things, she should be held accountable. But in reviewing Makopo’s case, I am struck by this woman, alone in the courtroom. I find myself asking questions: Is someone who does these things always an insidious child molester? Or could this be the behavior of an extremely poor—and poorly-qualified—child minder who has no sense of boundaries, an immature woman who played childish games to humiliate and overpower others? Is there a difference? Or any difference that matters?

South Africa has made enormous strides as a democratic nation. But for some there remains a brutality here, a roughness born of systematic, racialized oppression and desperate poverty. And it erupts in abuse—physical, verbal, sexual—among women as well as among men. It is everywhere. You are humiliated and you humiliate. In many ways, it is the exact opposite of the self-empowerment that Winfrey promotes in her television program, her magazine, and her school. And that’s what’s so difficult. Winfrey had installed the most advanced security systems at her school to protect the South African children inside. But in the end, she couldn’t keep out this part of South Africa.

During the lunch break, Tiny Makopo again joins her friends. They walk to the fast-food place in the vacant lot next door. The lot is full of tin-sided shacks and camper vans propped up on bricks. There is garbage everywhere: candy wrappers, plastic soda bottles, plastic bags.

Over a plate of fries, I ask Makopo whether she is working while she’s out on bail.

“I wish I were working,” she says. “I have no money. I have nothing. I want a job, desperately. I’m dependent on my friends to help me. Like today, it’s Friday. I want Captain Morgan, but I have no money.”

I asked Makopo what her dreams are for the future.

“I dream about those kids. I do. Every night,” Makopo says.

“You mean nightmares?” her friend asks.

“Yeah, I mean nightmares,” Makopo says. Then: “But I mean, no. No, I don’t have dreams. I don’t dream anymore. My life is fucked.”

All reporting by Gretchen L. Wilson, © 2008

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One Response to “The Oprah School on Trial”

  1. Liza Lightfoot Says:

    Very interesting take on this situation Gretchen.
    I wonder if Oprah has read your article. Most in
    the US would not understand the context in which this trial is taking place.

    I hope you are all well and the retreat house is
    going well. I would love to come and help you
    with the garden. Not sure when I will be back.
    Possibly Rich and Suzie’s wedding.

    Love to everyone,