Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls

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Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls
Sign at the entrance to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in Henley on Klip, South Africa - April 2015
Henley on Klip
South Africa
Type Private School
Established 2007
Principal Mr Melvin King
Grades 8 to 12
Enrollment ~380

The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls - South Africa is a girls-only boarding school that officially opened in January 2007 in Henley on Klip near Meyerton, south of Johannesburg, South AfricaCoordinates: 26°32′49″S 28°03′19″E / 26.54694°S 28.05528°E / -26.54694; 28.05528. Inspired by her own "humble beginnings" and disadvantaged background, Oprah Winfrey stated that she founded the Leadership Academy to provide educational and leadership opportunities for academically gifted girls from impoverished backgrounds in South Africa who exhibited leadership qualities for making a difference in the world.[1] The current headmistress is Mrs Anne Van Zyl who has been at the academy since 2010 and has had a history as a pioneer and agent of change in girls education.[2]

Giving back to the community[edit]

One of the Academy’s goals is to create leaders who will give back to the community, and the campaign to encourage this form of leadership has been dubbed OWLAGive which has young people between the ages of 14 and 16 devote 3000 hours for community outreach programmes. The students have been to most provinces to learn more about environmental awareness, social issues and housing projects. Dr. Anna Karola, Head of the Academy, explained the importance of the campaign, saying "service is central to the mission of the Academy. As leaders of tomorrow, the girls are encouraged to make service part of their everyday activities...by involving our students in OWLAGive, we will be creating an awareness of the great needs existing in South Africa, helping them identify issues and vulnerable groups and underlying the need for all to be involved in creating a better future."[3] "The programme has always been part of the school's curriculum and is in line with Winfrey's vision of what these girls will eventually mean to South Africa," explained Funa Maduka who heads the academy's leadership development programme.[4]

Main entrance to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls

Building houses[edit]

In the fall of 2010, 225 of the Academy's students partnered with the non-profit organization Habitat for Humanity to build 11 low-cost houses over two days for disadvantaged families in Orange Farm, south of Johannesburg. The girls mixed cement, laid bricks and toiled on the different building site and places

Raising breast cancer awareness[edit]

In the fall of 2008, a number of the girls linked with Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe to visit a breast cancer hospice. The visit was described as such a wake-up call for the girls who knew little about the illness, that they decided to make 500 pink breast cancer awareness ribbons for local distribution.[4]

Growing food[edit]

In the fall of 2008, the girls visited the Miss Earth SA Foundation to learn about bulbs and seeds before going on to plant trees and a vegetable garden at the Mambo Primary School where the students receive three meals a day from a feeding scheme run by the school.

"The spinach and carrots and fruit they planted will all grow to sustain the food programme," explained Maduka.[4]

Visiting orphans[edit]

In the fall of 2008, the girls went to Dennilton in Limpopo, where they visited a small orphanage where a playground featured on the wish list of the 100 children in her care according to head Cynthia Nkosi. The girls assembled playground equipment on the premises, painted it brightly and planted a garden.

According to Maduka, one of the kids approached a girl from the academy and said: "One day I want to be just like you. I want to know what you know and do what you do'". Maduka said this was "really special considering that some of our girls are orphans themselves."[4]

Visiting the elderly[edit]

In the fall of 2008, the girls visited the Soweto Home of the Aged, where the girls gave manicures to the Gogos (Gogo is a lovingly respectful pet name in South Africa for the elderly),[5] played monopoly and cards with them, and then painted a garden mural on the dining room wall.

Maduka praised the mural the girls painted, saying "it was a brilliant project because it looked really professional with flowers and toucan birds - and a lot of the people who can't even go outside anymore get to see it."[4]

HIV/AIDS leadership[edit]

In October 2009, the Academy invited 100 students from 30 schools around South Africa in an attempt to spread positive living principles and lessons on HIV/Aids prevention and leadership training. The sessions were held in highly equipped science labs. Dean of Students at the Academy, Funa Maduka said: "This is a great moment for the Academy because our young leaders are going to be giving leadership training to a hundred teens from around Gauteng and surrounding provinces. We have partnered up with Love Life to help identify 100 kids who they think are most in need and are most likely to benefit from a leadership course".

Students from the academy were trained by Love Life about HIV/Aids prevention, making decisions, and goal setting.

"In my group we tell them how HIV gets into your body, how it damages, how to prevent it and so on," explained Grade 9 student, Mpho.

"Everybody knows what HIV is, but I just want the youth to pay attention. If they pay attention then they’ll be more inclined to make better choices," she explained.

14-year-old Thobeka said she learnt a lot from the Decision-Making sessions, explaining: "Things I never considered before such as ’what would I do if I had a friend who was anorexic’. When you’ve faced with those situations you need to really dig deeper into yourself so that you don’t make decisions that you’ll regret at the end."

Maduka explained that’s what’s really powerful about it is that sometimes the best way to reach a teen is through another teen, adding: "This is to show our girls that you can be a leader today. You can be a powerful voice to your peers."

R ’n B performer Keri Hilson showed up to observe the events stating:"It’s just about making the right decisions. It’s about knowing your worth and knowing that you can wait for marriage and that peer pressure should not be a factor in making you act upon certain things."[6]

Art festival[edit]

In June 2009 an art festival was held at the school. Included was performance art in the school’s state of the art theatre where Winfrey sat in the front row tapping her foot to musical items and embracing one of the young girls who recited an essay she wrote about her broken poverty-stricken family and her desire to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

"I am moved by the stories," Winfrey said to The Associated Press. "When you think about these little girls three years ago carrying buckets of water on their heads and living with no running water. Now they are talking about going to Harvard and winning a Nobel Peace Prize." "I am moved by the fact that I have a vision for them and it now feels like they have embodied that vision for themselves. They are living the dream," she added.

British actress Thandie Newton came to the school to give the girls acting lessons and art and design lessons were provided by Greg Lauren, nephew of American fashion designer Ralph Lauren.

Also included in the art festival were dance classes, photography workshops, and cooking sessions with Winfrey's former personal chef, Art Smith.

Newton praised the talent and enthusiasm of the girls saying "Their tenacity, their enthusiasm, their ability has just surpassed all of my expectations, I have had an amazing time," she said.

Also included in the week's festivities were rap classes with a popular South African musician and lessons about the art of storytelling from the legendary African storyteller Gcina Mhlope.

The girls inspired cheers from the audience when they donned Wellington boots for a raucous performance of gumboot dancing. Gumboot dancing is a form of dance made popular by workers at South Africa's many mines where performers rhythmically slap and stamp their feet

For 2009 the festival’s theme was about creating environmental awareness through recyclable art. The girls created radios made from recycled wire, graceful vases from recycled paper and brightly colored flowers made out of discarded plastic bottles.

During the festival the girls behaved in a united, sisterly way, walking arm-in-arm or competing to be near Winfrey who they call "Mam Oprah". The media described the girls as articulate, eloquent and very confident, showing signs that they were handpicked by Winfrey herself.

"It's been great to be here," explained 14-year-old Tshepiso (the school requested that the girls be identified by their first names only). "I feel like I have a great opportunity to achieve my dreams. I feel very proud to be here."[7]

Representing South Africa[edit]

In August 2009, two of the students from the school, Debra and Marwiya, were selected to represent South Africa in the Women2Women America International Leadership Conference in Boston U.S.. Only 88 students from around the world were chosen to attend the event, and only 44 countries were represented. South Africa was one of only three Sub-Saharan African countries that won representation at the conference, with the other two being Uganda and Sudan. The two students won representation for South Africa in an essay-writing contest.

"We had to write an essay about women issues in South Africa. I was ecstatic when I was told that my essay was chosen," explained 16-year-old Debra who wrote about teen pregnancy, gender inequality and domestic violence.

The two students agreed that highlights of their trip to the U.S. were meeting rapper Jay-Z and watching the musical Wicked on Broadway.[8]

Criticisms and controversies[edit]

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Leadership Academy, Winfrey received much criticism surrounding the "extravagance" of the school, with mention, among other things, about the need for high thread-count sheets for the dormitory beds, a beauty salon, two theaters (one indoor, one outdoor) and a yoga classroom to educate girls in an impoverished region of South Africa.[9] In an article about the school's unveiling, Allison Samuels of Newsweek questioned whether the $40 million spent might have benefited a far greater number of students had the money been spent with less emphasis on luxurious surroundings and more emphasis on practicality.[10]

Winfrey defended her decision to establish the Leadership Academy in South Africa by offering the following observation:

I think the reason not just Africa but the world is in the state that it is is because of a lack of leadership on all levels of government ... and particularly in regard to schools and schooling for poor children. ... The best way to effect change long term is to ... give children exposure and opportunity and nurture them to understand their own power and possibility.[11]

She also continued by offering her view of the difference between the United States and South Africa in terms of their educational systems and the outlooks of children in those systems:

Say what you will about the American educational system — it does work. ... 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.[10]

Rebecca Traister of Salon.com argued that the criticism Winfrey received for daring to build a private school in Africa was predictable:

Winfrey might have known that news of her students' swank surroundings might not wash with American critics, who don't bat an eye at white hotel heiresses dancing on banquettes, or reality shows about sweet-16 parties at budgets that could build a home for a Katrina victim. But impoverished black girls sleeping on nice-ish sheets? That didn't go over so well. The affronted sense that these girls deserved only bare-minimum accommodations and that a private citizen's money should have been used to educating them in bulk rather than in gracious individual style reflects our own beliefs that the bare minimum is all poor (black) girls need.[12]

Karen Russell of The Huffington Post also came to Winfrey’s defense:

Critics say the school is too lavish for such an impoverished country. How dare Oprah have the audacity to spoil these Black African girls?! Why are so many quick to question if these girls deserve the best education Oprah's money has to offer? ... Oprah will get a lot of bang for her buck by educating poor Black girls in Africa. She realizes that educating South African girls must be a priority to help turn the tide in sub-Saharan Africa…where an education is quite rare, and birth rates for uneducated girls are so high, a little education could make a dramatic difference.[13]

Russell then cited the success of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female President who restored Liberia’s electricity, as an example of what can happen when the best and brightest girls in Africa are given a world class education. She praised Winfrey for sending the message that blacks and women have value by building a world class school for girls in sub-Saharan Africa.[13]

Other criticisms that Winfrey received about the Leadership Academy included the racial makeup of students, with the majority of students selected and accepted as candidates for the school being black. Winfrey deflected this criticism by saying that the "school is open to all girls who are disadvantaged. All girls, all races, who are disadvantaged ... [including] White, Indian and Native American students of varying faiths," as long as eligibility requirements were met.[14] Many of girls chosen for the Leadership Academy come from families affected by HIV/AIDS.[15]

In spite of the criticism, Winfrey's offered that her vision for the Leadership Academy was to provide a vehicle for mentoring academically talented and disadvantaged girls with "that 'It' quality" to provide them with opportunities to "change the face of a nation," make a difference in the world and to become future leaders of South Africa. As for rationale of the lavishness of the school, Winfrey continued by saying that "[i]f you are surrounded by beautiful things and wonderful teachers who inspire you, that beauty brings out the beauty in you."[16] To change how women are viewed, Winfrey added during an interview, one must look for an opportunity "'to change the paradigm, to change the way not only these girls think ... but to also change the way a culture feels about what women can do.'[17] 'Girls who are educated are less likely to get HIV/AIDS and in this country which has such a pandemic, we have to begin to change the pandemic.'"[18]

Visiting rules controversy[edit]

In March 2007, some parents complained because they were only allowed to visit their children once a month and the girls were only allowed to use their cell phones on weekends.[19]

John Samuels, the executive head of the school responded to the complaints;

We have the security and well-being of the girls at heart, in every respect. They are our priority. If there's too much movement on the premises at the weekend, it disturbs the school spirit.

Alleged physical and sexual abuse[edit]

In October 2007, a female school staffer was accused of physically and sexually abusing students. Winfrey flew to South Africa to meet with school officials and parents on 12 October. Winfrey was quoted as saying:

Nothing is more serious or devastating to me than an allegation of misconduct by an adult against any girl at the academy,

According to the Afrikaans-language newspaper Rapport, the "dorm matron" allegedly grabbed a student by the throat and threw her against a wall. The unidentified woman is also alleged to have screamed at and assaulted her wards, as well as fondled at least one girl. The staffer has been put on probation pending an investigation.[20]

On 1 November 2007, Police Superintendent Lunge Dlamini announced that the 27-year-old dorm matron had been arrested after seven students submitted statements alleging assault and various abuse at the hands of the employee.[21]

Dlamini stated;

Several charges including alleged assault, indecent assault, criminal injury and soliciting underage girls to perform indecent acts are being investigated against her

Winfrey reportedly provided each girl with a cell phone programmed with her personal phone number. In a statement she said;

It is my deepest hope that the accused is brought to justice and that this serves as a reminder that any time a child has the courage to step forward, it is our duty as adults to listen and take immediate action.

The Times, a Johannesburg newspaper, said the incident was unsurprising given that South Africa has some of the highest rates of child rape in the world, and praised Winfrey for dealing aggressively with the problem.[22]

Merlene Davis of the Lexington-Herald Leader also praised Winfrey’s response to the crisis:

But I so admire how Winfrey handled the mess after she heard about it. She pulled no punches, revealed all the ugliness and promised the parents of those girls to do a much better job… The good coming out of this, however, is that those girls, who all have come from extreme poverty, have some idea of what a powerful woman looks like and what she stands for. So do those who no longer work at the academy.[23]

Rachel Jewkes, a specialist on sexual violence with South Africa's Medical Research Council, praised Winfrey’s response as "phenomenal", because it sent such a powerful message in a country afflicted with record high levels of sexual abuse:

I think the message that is sent by this, that [sexual abuse] is utterly unacceptable, is a really powerful one. We never get a message that's so unequivocal about how these acts should be judged. Wouldn't it be wonderful if these acts would always be taken so seriously?[24]

On 23 March 2010, the Associated Press reported that Winfrey settled the defamation lawsuit filed by one of the headmistresses at the Academy before the trial began.[25]


There have also been reports of praise for the school. According to Masechaba Hine, whose daughter and granddaughter both attend the school, her children "have no problems about the school, they are happy about everything." Hine has been so pleased with the experience that she even praised Winfrey personally, saying, "Oprah is an angel, she is God-sent…She came to my rescue when my husband was not working."[26]

Praise from Nelson Mandela[edit]

One of the academy's most vocal fans has been Nelson Mandela, who called Winfrey his hero because she understood that South Africa's gains in democracy would be nullified unless future generations were educated. He was quoted in Time magazine as saying:

The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls—located near Johannesburg and educating girls in Grades 7 through 12—is therefore a wonderfully appropriate gift to the people of South Africa, one that will endure over many lifetimes. When I went to the opening of her school, I looked at the shining faces of these young women and thought every one of them has the potential to be an Oprah Winfrey. The school is important because it will change the trajectory of these girls' lives and it will brighten the future of all women in South Africa. Oprah understands that in Africa, women and girls have often been doubly disadvantaged. They have had the curse of low expectations and unequal opportunities.[27]

Praise from Bill Clinton[edit]

The academy was honored by Bill Clinton when he featured it in his book Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World as an example of how to give back to the world. Clinton predicted that the school would change the lives of many young women and interviewed Winfrey to find out why she decided to build the school. Winfrey explained that caring teachers "made education an open door" for her and that she wanted to help girls who grew up like her, "economically disadvantaged, but not poor in mind or spirit".[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Reaching out: South African school for girls born out of Oprah's need to "feel" a connection. (2007, 2 January). The Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 10 January 2007.
  2. ^ http://www.educationweb.co.za/ew/?p=502
  3. ^ http://www.sowetan.co.za/News/Article.aspx?id=867584
  4. ^ a b c d e http://www.iol.co.za/index.php?set_id=1&click_id=124&art_id=vn20081023054945276C732527
  5. ^ GOGO trust, FAQ. "What does Gogo mean? Gogo is a term of respect/endearment given to elderly people in South Africa." Retrieved 17 September 2010.
  6. ^ http://www.sowetan.co.za/News/Article.aspx?id=1080169#
  7. ^ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/06/19/oprah-winfrey-visits-sout_n_218167.html
  8. ^ http://www.sowetan.co.za/News/Article.aspx?id=1048368
  9. ^ McGregor, S. (2007, 2 January). Oprah opens academy for poor girls in South Africa. Newsweek. Retrieved 10 January 2007.
  10. ^ a b Samuels, A. (2007, January 8). Oprah goes to school. Newsweek. Retrieved January 8, 2007.
  11. ^ Winfrey Says She Wants to Nurture Kids. (2007, January 3). The Washington Post. Retrieved January 14, 2007.
  12. ^ Traister, R. (2007, January 13). What Oprah can't forget. Salon.com. Retrieved January 14, 2007.
  13. ^ a b Russell, K. (2007, January 4). War on Oprah. The Huffington Post. Retrieved January 14, 2007.
  14. ^ CNN transcript (Jeff Koinanage, CNN Africa correspondent reporting). (2007, 2 January). CNN. Retrieved 14 January 2007.
  15. ^ Jacobson, C. (2007, 3 January)
  16. ^ Oprah's school for girls opens in S. Africa: Plus, TV mogul answers critics who would rather see her help poor students in U.S. (2007, 3 January). EURweb. Retrieved 10 January 2007.
  17. ^ Oprah wants to change view of women in Africa: Talk show host opens school for girls in effort to change the culture. MSNBC. Retrieved January 10, 2007.
  18. ^ Usborne, D. (2007, 3 January). Oprah wants to change view of women in Africa: Oprah's £20 m school proves she's not all talk. The Independent (UK). Retrieved 10 January 2007.
  19. ^ Oprah's school 'too strict': South Africa: News: News24
  20. ^ http://www.news24.com/News24/South_Africa/News/0,,2-7-1442_2206298,00.html Retrieved 23 October 2007.
  21. ^ News | Africa - Reuters.com
  22. ^ Oprah Scandal Rocks South Africa - TIME
  23. ^ http://www.kentucky.com/139/story/224761.html
  24. ^ Oprah case highlights abuse in South Africa | csmonitor.com
  25. ^ Oprah Winfrey Settles Headmistress' Pa. Lawsuit
  26. ^ Despite allegations, Oprah's school supported - CNN.com
  27. ^ Oprah Winfrey - The TIME 100 - TIME
  28. ^ Bill Clinton. Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World Page 18

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