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Oprah Winfrey's Charity Show

Five years ago, the talk show titan’s altruism turned into the worst crisis of her adult life. Rather than abandon her South African school, Winfrey learnt from her mistakes—and doubled down on what she believed in

Published: Nov 26, 2012 06:06:25 AM IST
Updated: Nov 26, 2012 07:55:51 AM IST
Oprah Winfrey's Charity Show
Image: Mariella Furrer / Redux for Forbes
Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls' students

At the front entrance of Oprah Winfrey’s school, flanked by blue gum trees and veld grass, the South African flag sits at half-mast. Four days earlier, police opened fire on striking workers at a platinum mine two hours north, killing 34. At daily assembly in the campus’ plush auditorium, 296 girls in grass-green blazers and pleated skirts bow their heads, some muttering prayers.

Grieving is a practised skill for pupils of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG). The school’s student body collectively endures, on average, the death of one primary caregiver a week, and they formally mourn together every Monday. “This is the real South Africa,” says Anne van Zyl, the school’s fourth head of academy in five years. “They’ve seen AIDS. They’ve seen violence.”

Eighteen-year-old Mashadi is typical: Her father died four years ago, leaving her mother as the sole breadwinner. But as her former classmates remember the miners, she’s preparing for a new ritual. That same week in August, Mashadi and Winfrey hit Bed Bath & Beyond in Boston picking out twin sheet sets and other necessities for Mashadi’s dorm room at Wellesley College with the six other girls from the first graduating class at OWLAG (oh-lag, as students call it) starting at a US college this autumn. Mashadi comes from Alexandra, a poor, dangerous township of corrugated iron shacks on Johannesburg’s northern outskirts. At home, she shares a single bed with her mother, a domestic worker for a white family. She didn’t consider college until the 11th grade. “I wondered, who do I leave my mom with?” she says. Adds Winfrey: “There isn’t a toilet in her house, there isn’t water in the house. And she’ll be at Wellesley.”

Following the sheet-shopping, the woman who students all call ‘Mom-Oprah’ drags the freshman posse to a Target. As starstruck back-to-school shoppers gawk and the seven girls fill their baskets with notebooks, cutlery and other supplies, Winfrey has to unexpectedly compose herself.

The 58-year-old media billionaire held it together at her school’s first graduation in January, when 72 girls in neat white dresses filed out of the auditorium into the midsummer sunshine, every single one headed to university in a country where only 14 percent of the black population graduate from high school. But picking out dorm towels, the kind of rite that an upper-middle-class American takes for granted, drove home the magnitude of their journey. “I just realised: Oh, Jesus, this actually happened,” Winfrey tells Forbes days later, back at the 42-acre coastal estate near Santa Barbara, California, where she’s lived full-time since wrapping her Chicago talk show in May last year.

While she won’t say it explicitly, the emotion surely also stems from relief—and a feeling of redemption. Soon after it opened five years ago, Winfrey’s school was the subject of a sex abuse scandal that reached international scope, owing to its founder’s fame, with a dose of schadenfreude from those weary of a woman who five times a week for 25 years had effortlessly turned no-names into bestselling authors, shrinks into gurus and audience members into shrieking new car owners.

Winfrey responded by shuttering outside access to the school. But, while headlines receded, she didn’t give up on her philanthropic goal: Not just to educate her girls but also to change the trajectory of their lives. On Labour Day weekend Winfrey found validation in the unlikely form of nerve-wracked text messages from her valedictorian. Eighteen-year-old Bongeka was worried she wasn’t good enough, that she’d fail. Winfrey reminded her that at home, she’d washed her clothes on her hands and knees in a river. Now she was in Atlanta, at Spelman College. She’d already won.

With the spectre of the sex scandal fading and her second group of seniors sending out college applications, Winfrey is opening the school back up to the outside world. She invited Forbes to South Africa, giving us exclusive access to the school. The story found there is one of good intentions gone awry, persistence—and vindication.

Winfrey’s school began as a rather outlandish promise. In 2000 Winfrey and longtime boyfriend Stedman Graham were vacationing at the home of Nelson Mandela on the country’s Western Cape. For 10 days Winfrey and the former South African president swapped stories, exchanged ideas and passed newspaper sections back and forth. When the topic turned to poverty, Winfrey spoke up. It’s a subject she knows something about.

Growing up in Kosciusko, Mississippi, Winfrey’s childhood wasn’t far removed from the average South African. She lived on a farm without indoor plumbing and watched her grandmother, who largely raised her, hand-wash her clothes. At nine she was raped by a cousin; at 14 she gave birth to a son, who died after childbirth. Her way out came in the form of a federal programme that gained her access to a rich suburban school, where she was one of only a handful of African-Americans. Each day she bounced between a home of poverty and a classroom of possibilities. Here she discovered a knack for public speaking and debate, which earned her a part-time radio gig and, later, a scholarship to Tennessee State University.

Oprah Winfrey's Charity Show
Winfrey at her school’s fi rst graduation in January

When she started making real money—millions, then billions, from her eponymous talk show and subsequent media empire—she vowed to pay for other poor black kids to go to college. And she has: To date she’s shelled out around $400 million toward educational causes, including more than 400 scholarships to Atlanta’s Morehouse College. Sitting on the floor at Mandela’s house, in thrall to her hero and saddened as he described the state of schooling in his country, she vowed to take her giving a step further.

Winfrey pledged $10 million toward a South African school then and there. “When you go to Nelson Mandela’s house, what do you take?” she says. “You can’t bring a candle.” Ten years ago this December, she broke ground in Henley-on-Klip, until then an unremarkable cluster of ranch-style homes 40 miles south of Johannesburg. When Winfrey and her team started recruiting in 2006, she was adamant that she’d accept only the brightest but most disadvantaged kids: Those at the top of their public school class but from households with an income of less than $950 a month.

By the time Mashadi, Bongeka and the 150 other members of the first two classes arrived in 2007, that $10 million had grown to $40 million, as Winfrey turned 52 acres of scrubland into a campus closer to Ivy League standards than even the plush suburban school she had attended. “It started out as an emotional giveback,” says Winfrey. “It has developed into a way of life for me. What it really is, is an investment in leadership and an investment in the future of a country. That’s how I now see it.”

Touring the school, it’s not difficult to see how the costs spiralled. A brand new swimming pool adjoins a workout room where the ‘learners’, as they’re called here, take spinning classes on stationary bikes. The administrative building could double as a gallery of South African art, and the auditorium feels like a Broadway theatre. As with all aspects of her work, Winfrey is a perfectionist. When the school officially opened in January 2007, groundskeepers sprayed the dry, yellow grass with green dye in preparation for the arrival of dignitaries like Mandela and celebrity friends like Diane Sawyer and Spike Lee. “It stained your shoes,” laughs Sam Blake, director of operations at the school and Winfrey’s eyes and ears on the ground. The image of that veneer would quickly come back to bite.

Oprah Winfrey's Charity Show
The school wasn’t exactly popular in Henley-on-Klip. Blake fielded noise complaints from neighbours who claimed the sound of tennis balls bouncing on the school’s courts was disturbing them. “I got phone calls saying, ‘I hope all your trees die’,” Blake says. “There are people who didn’t want us here, 150 black girls in an all-white area.” Townspeople idled in their cars, hoping to get a glimpse of Winfrey’s chosen few. “They watched the girls play soccer and netball,” Blake says. “We put up fences. Oprah had us put hedges up, too.”

The venture was also greeted with uncertainty by some American media outlets. Why was Winfrey spending $40 million on one school when she could build a bunch for that price? Why were the girls sleeping on 200-thread-count sheets? Why were there chandeliers hanging from the library ceiling and brightly-coloured mosaic tile pillars outside the cafeteria? Blake grimaces when he’s reminded of those early articles.

“When you walk into a beautiful place, you think better of yourself,” he explains simply. Walking the perimeter of the campus, he describes the first batch of blueprints from local school authorities, who’d leased Winfrey the land.

She wasn’t pleased. “She said it looked like a chicken coop,” Blake laughs. Winfrey severed ties with the state and decided to do it alone, hiring the architects behind Johannesburg’s famous Apartheid Museum. She donned jeans and a hard hat and oversaw every aspect of construction. She thought of the little things: The tubs of umbrellas outside each building for use during South Africa’s rainy season, when it pours almost non-stop for 40 days. They’re green, her favorite colour, to match the girls’ uniforms.

At the school’s first convocation, Winfrey took the stage to address the girls and their relatives, bused in from across South Africa. “For many years people always asked me why didn’t I have children,” she told the crowd. “Now I know.”

In October 2007, Winfrey’s philanthropic dream turned toxic with one phone call. Winfrey learned that a group of girls had come forward alleging that a 27-year-old dorm parent had been molesting them. “The security guard would see the dorm parent going in and out,” says Winfrey, shaking her head, “and say, ‘Yeah, I asked her what she was doing; she said she was helping her with her homework.’ At five in the morning?”

Winfrey jumped on a plane, wracked with guilt and worry. “By the time a girl gets to my school, normally she’s suffered on average six major life traumas,” Winfrey says. “They’ve lost a parent or both parents. Multiple accidents, death in your family, AIDS, rape, sexual molestation, all of it. Unimaginable things have happened.” Every year a handful of incoming students are diagnosed by the school’s on-campus team of psychologists and social workers as having post-traumatic stress disorder simply from living their everyday lives. Now it appeared to be happening on her watch.

The situation on the ground grew still worse, amplifying the subtle media criticisms that predated the scandal. In the ensuing months and years, seven girls were suspended for ‘inappropriate behaviour’ that included sexually harassing classmates, and the body of a dead baby boy was found in a 17-year-old student’s schoolbag. “The fact that this place did not implode is a miracle,” says English teacher Clare McIntyre of the early years. Some of the girls feared Winfrey would grow frustrated and abandon the school. “She could have closed it and sent us away elsewhere,” says Bongeka.

The sad irony is that Winfrey had set up an unprecedented safety barrier in a country where more than a third of young women are sexually abused, with barbed wire fences, a high-tech entry system and all-female security. “We thought our risks were all men-related, so my goal was to keep the men out,” she says. It turned out her crisis was completely internal.

Oprah Winfrey's Charity Show

Part of the underlying problem stemmed, in retrospect, from an oversensitivity to local culture. “The thing that held me up for a long time was people would say, ‘That’s not the African way,’ or ‘That’s not culturally appropriate’,” she says. “I’d say, ‘Well, you know, I would think that people should show up on time and be dressed appropriately.’ I was trying to balance what I felt was the right thing versus not interferring with whatever was the cultural norm.”

The 152 12- and 13-year-old girls, handpicked by Winfrey herself from an application pool of 3,500, came from all nine South African provinces, speaking all 11 of the country’s official mother tongues. Bongeka came in speaking seven of them, with English her weakest.

Winfrey quickly fired the alleged child abuser—who was later acquitted in a South African court—plus every other residential staffer and the school’s head. “She wanted to clean house and start again,” says Sibusisiwe Thembela, the school’s librarian, who took over during what Winfrey calls ‘the crisis’.

To add insult to injury, the former head sued Winfrey for defamation in 2008 for implying she was, per legal filings: “Untrustworthy, failed the students of the academy, did not care about the students at the academy, knew of alleged physical and sexual abuse at the academy and participated in a cover-up of the alleged abuse.” The case was resolved only in 2010, when they settled for an undisclosed amount. The press, of course, moved on to other stories, having pierced Winfrey’s invincible image. Many people forgot the school existed or assumed it had quietly closed down.

A little-known statistic even the most altruistic don’t realise until they wade into heavy-duty giving: The majority of philanthropic initiatives don’t work; 75 percent close up shop in their first year. Even so, there’s merit in the effort: As in business, failures lead to insights and breakthroughs. But Winfrey, rather than chalk up her school as a costly life lesson, quietly redoubled her efforts to make it work.

That rebirth started in earnest in 2010 with the hiring of van Zyl, tall and no-nonsense, the descendant of an Anglican minister who immigrated to Malawi. Van Zyl had the pedigree and the guts: She led the integration of Pretoria High School for Girls, the first all-white school in the region to accept black students as the veil of apartheid lifted.

Supporting van Zyl is Winfrey’s trusted confidante, Blake, a bald, bespectacled Texan who spent 27 years in the Air Force before becoming Winfrey’s pilot. He spent 15 years with Harpo Productions during Winfrey’s talk show heyday, shuttling her across the country in a Gulfstream IV. After vertigo rendered him unable to fly a plane, Winfrey found another role for him, first with her charitable Angel Network rebuilding homes in post-Katrina New Orleans, then in South Africa, where he oversees day-to-day operations. ‘Uncle Sam’, as the girls call him, promised Winfrey two years at the school. He’s been there six.

Oprah Winfrey's Charity Show
Image: Fred Prouser / Reuters
Oprah poses at the OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) launch cocktail reception for the Television Critics Association

Winfrey considers building the school without community buy-in another one of her early mistakes (“I could write a book, 101 Mistakes,” she says). Today, the girls volunteer at a children’s home in nearby Meyerton. Local kids are invited to use the school’s top-notch dance studio in off-peak hours. Winfrey has also built two public schools at a cost of just over $3 million each as a model for the South African government to show what is possible for well under a $40 million price tag. When the school day ends at one of those pilot schools, the campus hosts adult education classes.

“When I arrived in 2010, the school had turned inward,” says van Zyl, citing the ongoing defamation suit against Winfrey as a reason for its insularity. “I wanted it to be open to the world and to let the girls out.” She also dictated that her faculty—the vast majority of whom are South Africans, of all races—not allow the girls’ often tragic upbringings to cloud their mission.

“This is something you’ll find the world over when people are dealing with children from disadvantaged backgrounds: Anything is good enough,” she says. “Oprah stands for…I mean, the brand is compassion, excellence, all those other things. She takes no prisoners. If I write an email to Oprah, I’ll get someone to check I haven’t made a typo or something. Her expectation of everybody who works for her is absolutely professional and excellent. Nothing short of perfection is good enough.”

For new students, achieving their benefactor’s expectations—she tells them all she expects them to go to college and will, in fact, pay for it—starts by drumming out the cultural assumption that women don’t have to study since they’ll just get married and have kids anyway. “We drill, actually,” says Mampho Langa, the school’s head of academics and a popular math teacher. “That you can, you have, you do. Their role model being Ms Winfrey makes a huge difference. They’ve noticed a woman can do it.”

From there, the girls work around the clock, buoyed by their opportunity and the chance to learn. “They go home and bury Dad, bury a brother who burnt to death,” she says. “And they come to me on Monday and say, ‘Can I take your test?’ It has changed completely for me the meaning of excellence. I don’t know how they do it. They’ll make you cry.”


Winfrey’s expenditures have shot past $105 million as she shoulders college tuitions for the first time. But she’s now seeing the return on her investment. In July, the school’s ‘magnificent seven’ US-bound girls spent two weeks on the Boston College campus. Winfrey organised an assimilation programme for them. None of them had left South Africa before touring 15 universities in 12 days in 2010 (they took time out to meet one of Winfrey’s good friends, President Barack Obama, at the White House).

An English professor took the seven teenagers through what he called cultural texts: An issue of the New Yorker, a Brooks Brothers catalogue, a vegan cookbook. Thando, a movie-star beautiful 19-year-old, winced at the idea that Americans would eat non-dairy ice cream. Bongeka scrunched up her cherubic face as she flipped through the clothing catalogue, noting aloud that only one of the Brooks Brothers models was black.

Their classmate Mpumi wasn’t as talkative. She hadn’t been well recently, having overcome a bout of strep throat. Between lunch and the afternoon’s race-relations class, she said she’d been cheered by a call from Winfrey, asking if she’d recovered. “There are not too many people who I have to call,” says Mpumi, tears gathering.

To help more Mpumis, Winfrey is reaching out to corporations and wealthy individuals in South Africa, hoping to boost the school’s endowment. Her fellow billionaires are pitching in, too: Michael Dell donated laptops, Spanx inventor Sara Blakely cut a $1 million check and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos gave each girl a Kindle. Winfrey, meanwhile, is mulling her next big move: A school in the US, possibly in her home state of Mississippi. “Being able to see in human form those girls blossom into who you knew they could be, there’s really nothing like that for me,” she says. “You can see over and over again the possibility of your own self being lived out in somebody else’s life.” Winfrey begins this next chapter armed with five years of tough lessons and the knowledge that, as she puts it, “If you can do it in South Africa, you can do it anywhere.”

(This story appears in the 07 December, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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