International talk show host Oprah Winfrey says she 'feels insulted' by allegations that four girls expelled from her elite South African school for their alleged involvement in sexual and other misconduct, were 'summarily thrown out.'
She is also offended by claims that three others who were suspended had been isolated and denied privileges. See previous story here
For the first time, Winfrey has admitted she had made mistakes setting up the Johannesburg academy.
Speaking exclusively to the Weekend Argus on Friday, the multi-millionaire talk show hostess described how at midnight, two weeks ago, she was on the end of a telephone line in Chicago as a disciplinary committee decided what to do about the suspensions of three girls, and how last year she had flown to South Africa to counsel another girl who was later expelled. see'It was insulting to me to have the grandmother go to the press'
Winfrey said she had had that child's grandmother and guardian brought to the leadership academy at Henley on Klip, along with an interpreter. There, Winfrey had told the girl her behaviour was not acceptable, but was persuaded to give her a second chance.
On Friday, Winfrey said: "It was insulting to me to have the grandmother go to the press when I had spoken to her over a year ago. With her granddaughter present, I brought her into the hearing and said I am giving her a warning. That's why, two weeks ago, I got up in the middle of the night to be part of a hearing (into the suspensions of three other girls) myself. Those children in their own testimony during the hearing said they knew they were breaking the rules and that they deliberately broke the rules."
Winfrey acknowledged she had made errors setting up the academy. "I have made several mistakes, and one of them was being over-protective of the girls, which has led to an impression that the school is isolating them from society."
'I have made several mistakes'
Another mistake might have been to select only the most academically gifted girls, so when they arrive at school they find themselves no longer at the top of the class and struggle to adapt.Winfrey believes, though, that her initiative and her own commitment to the country will be "ultimately judged" when the girls graduate from university. When each new class begins at her academy, Winfrey insists the pupils abide by a code of conduct.
"When this school first opened, there was an agreement I made with the girls. I speak to every class that comes in and reinforce the honour code. That is most important to me: that this is not just a group of smart girls, but smart, kind, gracious, generous girls, who can live in harmony with other girls."
Winfrey, who reiterated her complete commitment to the school, says she does not consider the expulsions, nor the scandal around the former dormitory matron who is on trial for allegedly sexually abusing some of the girls, to be "a shadow" in her life.
But she accepts the school is "not an environment" which everybody is cut out for - simply because is it a boarding school. "One of the 7th graders asked to go back home this term and she says she wants to stay at home. She really could not adjust to boarding school, she was too homesick.
"There are so many wonderful things happening all the time. The majority of girls are thriving, really fulfilling the dream and vision I had. They really have exceeded any expectations I had for them.
"In spite of everything that's happened, what keeps me inspired and hopeful is the heart of every girl, because they are wonderful, they are magnificent."
Criticised by some Americans when she was developing the school in Henley-on-Klip for not rather investing in a new inner-city project in the US, (see video) Winfrey says she has "never encountered in all of my experience, when I go around talking to kids in inner city schools, where children are this hungry for learning excellence, where they understand the value of it. That's what keeps me going."
Although she regrets that there are "too many negative reports out there", she says her "greatest worry" was for the girls who have testified in the trial of the dormitory matron.
"That was really difficult, because you see a change in each girl, but I think that for the most part they feel better for it.
"The only thing I ever said to them was, 'speak your truth, and other people will get to speak their own. Use your voice in such a way you get the chance to be empowered.'" Winfrey will return in June to visit the academy.