Oprah Winfrey’s expensive South African education

The ‘world’ cares about South African education! OK, that’s not really true. But it did pay attention recently to one school … sort of. Earlier this month the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, or OWLAG, held its first graduation. 72 of the original 75 girls walked down the aisle, to much applause and with good reason. The young women worked hard, and now they’re off to University and hopefully to all that a very high-priced education can offer. One can hope.

Of course, OWLAG has had its difficulties and controversies. Allegations of abuse by staff. Allegations of slander against Oprah. Discussions of the real lesson of the Academy. After all, more than $40 million for 70 some students is a high price tag, in any country. How does that speak to the lives of disenfranchised girls and boys in South Africa … or anywhere? Must every low- and no-income community wait for a wealthy member of the rescue industry to show up?

There are many other questions about the school and many other reasons to celebrate the various accomplishments of its students, alumnae, and staff. But where does OWLAG fit, or sit, in the landscape of South African education? You won’t get that answer from The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, ABC News, or CNN.

Their story is more or less the following. Once upon a time a woman named Oprah Winfrey had tea with a man named Nelson Mandela. He persuaded her to care. She invested money, lots of it, in a school for ‘underprivileged’ girls, girls who had suffered terrible hardships, in particular sexual violence. The school had its ups and downs. Now, the class is graduating, Oprah beams, cries and is really a very “proud mama”. The end.

Context is not that much work. Why couldn’t we get some?

The Guardian report did have a bit:

Results at the school, which is equipped with computer and science laboratories, a theatre and a beauty salon, stand out in South Africa’s troubled education system. Of the 1 million pupils who enrolled in 2000, more than half dropped out before the final exams. Only a quarter of those who graduated did well enough to qualify for university. Earlier this week, a stampede at a Johannesburg university campus killed a mother who had accompanied her son to an application day. Thousands were vying for a few hundred spots at the university.

It’s not much, but it’s something.

Al Jazeera’s coverage was spot on. Here’s their version of the story: The school has much to celebrate. South Africa, on the other hand, has much to worry about. Even though matric passage rates this past year were at a record high, the passing grade is quite low. Many schools are without water, electricity, books, teachers, buildings. Yoliswa Dwane, of Equal Education, explains that the situation in rural and township schools is catastrophic, and that it’s the fault of the State, that has persistently refused to address inequality in education … or anywhere else.

That was then, two weeks ago. Since then, nary a peep from the world press about South Africa’s education. Except for The Economist, which visits Forte High School in Soweto and describes the situation as ‘dysfunctional’.

Yoliswa Dwane and others blasted the State for closing down 4,500 public schools over the past five years. And guess which ones in which communities they were? Go ahead. Guess.

Various provinces report that they have a lack, in some cases a practical bankruptcy, of math and science teachers. Some schools have no electricity, while the ‘posh schools’ (that’s private and former white schools) are using iPad 2 tablets … for every student.

The University of Cape Town’s Centre for Higher Education Development estimates that less than half of the 98,000 who enrolled in universities in 2010 would pass the courses they had signed up for in three years.

And tertiary students across the country are struggling with, and protesting, rising school fees.

Meanwhile, the nation faces a crisis in which too many qualified aspirants seek too few places in University. And guess who gets left out? Go ahead. Guess. The Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has released a green paper that may or may not address that. The debate continues. The struggle continues. The nation worries about ‘a lost generation’.

People beam and cry at graduations, and that’s wonderful. When news organizations beam and cry, that’s a blurring of vision … at best.



Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an Associate Professor at George Washington University.

  1. I’m not sure what this article was meant to accomplish. But if it’s belittling or dissing Oprah? BAD move. Although, I can’t believe that’s the articles purpose. Oprah is of African descent, and of course Nelson is an African HERO! This school was an example of the right thing to do for any ultra rich person. (Invest, give to others)
    If the point is that the media needs to be more thorough in its coverage of schools, then I agree.

    1. @Speech … although this was qualified previously, I’d like to point out a few things anyway. Read media for it’s message and not its bias before assuming things. And freedom of speech means you can “diss” Oprah, or anyone else for that matter if the situation warrants it although clearly that was not the intent of the article. And as for an “African HERO”, South Africa and its people have been his and his associates’ responsibility for almost 18 years now. Believe me, he lives VERY comfortably. People around the world focused on what they were told to, or chose to see of the South African situation, and since the change not that much has been discussed, at least in the major media. South Africa is a mess right now, politically corrupt (but then what governement isn’t), economically dicey, educationally dysfunctional and crime is off the charts – backyards look like prison yards. Oh, if you have enough money to seclude and pamper yourself, you can pretend that the rest doesn’t exist, but it’s there, even after 18 years of freedom. Those girls taken under Oprah’s wing are fortunate indeed and God bless her for her giving … which she is under no obligation to do by the way, no matter how rich she is … May the girls’ futures be bright and free of the corruption and violence that is almost a way of life in the new South Africa.

      1. I am a Christian, and I believe that there exist a God who created all things. I also believe that before men can be blessed by God, they must be obedient to God. There exists in South Africa, as in many countries of this world, ungodly or sinful living. No nation or people that violate the laws of God can be blessed. The laws of God are the laws of life! The primary law of God is love. People do not obey God’s commandments to love their neighbors as they love themselves. Instead, there is only hate and jealousy, greed and covetousness, larceny and murder, etcetera.

        This world is controlled by two spiritual forces; one is good and the other evil. But each person gets to choose which force to subscribe to. As a Christian, I believe that “all things are possible with God”. If the people of South Africa, or elsewhere in the world, would give their lives to God in obedience, their lot in this life would flourish. This is not a trivial matter.

        Anywhere in the world where people do not love each other we find high crimes, acts of evil and wickedness. Some peoples of South Africa might be waiting for the Oprahs of the world (people with a lot of money) to come and build schools and other infrastructures to rescue them from poverty. However, nothing would save you from the evils of sinfulness and crime. South Africa, like other places in this world, needs a spiritual savior more than an economic one. More people do not understand that “spiritual forces” control this world of ours.

        World governments are corrupt because the devil runs this world; not God. People as individuals and communities have to save themselves to God by being “born again” by the Spirit of Christ. While the god of this world is “money”, the God of Heaven is the “Holy Spirit”. In general, if we focus on being obedient to God and attain the Holy Spirit, all our needs would be met. I am a Christian, and I believe that all things are possible with God.

  2. @Speech, you missed the boat by rather a long swim. The post is criticising the media, not Oprah. And it’s totally justified. What an excellent read.

  3. I hope her example will inspire others to also build extremely high standard schools for the most disadvantaged people. God Bless her.

  4. Of course it is good that these girls got a chance to benefit from high quality education – in this case thanks to Oprah. But why would she have to create an elite school for 72 disadvantaged girls out of tens if not hundreds of thousands in this country? How about using that money to support the establishment of a decent standard of education for all? South Africa’s biggest problem is the immense level of inequality which has been entrenched in society for decades if not centuries – as have violence and crime although in the past the violence and the crime were legalised by an inhuman system. Schools like this one may change the life of a handful of fortunate individuals – but they serve to reinforce the inequality inherent in the education system and society in general instead of changing it. As such they do not contribute anything to the solution of South Africa’s problems. To the contrary. But of course such a project produces some good, marketable pictures with which someone like Oprah can gain the general public’s appreciation for her generosity. Changing the system requires political work instead of charity – but unfortunately it is much less photogenic.

    1. … and Oprah has realised that she could not change the political system, but she could change the lives of some hundreds of girls. So she was faced with a choice of doing nothing, or doing something.

      She chose to do what she could. What did YOU do? And what have you got against marketable photos?

  5. If I had 40 mil to throw around, I would have hired 10,000 extra teachers to place in all the schools. Instead opra has created her own version of 1%ers who will be relatively rich while millions of others are going to be very very poor

  6. I really enjoyed this article and it really put into perspective the education system in South Africa. It really astonishes me that some schools do not have electricity and books. What makes this problem even worse is knowing that the private or former white schools have iPad 2 tablets for every student. I really like what Oprah is doing by building her school and trying to give a few students a chance at a good education. By building her school she is giving a few lucky students the privilege of going to school that has electricity, books, running water, and teachers who are qualified to teach and who care about their students’ educations. Even though some of the results from her school were not that good, she is at least giving the students a chance at a better education and hopefully she can set a good example and more schools like hers can follow.

  7. The impact made by Oprah to the South African girls that are fortunate enough to attend her school is one to be admired. While worthy of this admiration however, the media and media viewers must be aware of the true state of the South African education system, and understand that Winfrey’s school is not representative of the vast majority of South African students. The system itself is one that denies students the necessary resources to attain a decent education, and requires the South African government’s immediate attention. Oprah Winfrey, the American icon that she is, has created a shining example of generosity for those who live in more developed societies; however, this must be understood in context, so as not to distract from the work that must be done by the South African government, and the shortcomings that exist in the current system.

  8. It is pleasing to the ear to hear about Oprah’s donations to South African education but I think she is missing the big picture. Yes, South Africa struggles with providing their young student’s education. The article even informs us that some schools are without electricity, teachers and books. If the country can’t afford to higher teachers then they should consider a change in government which might alter there economic situation. From there schools can employ teachers and begin a lesson plan where the students can actually be educated. I don’t feel that one expensive school with lower standards for graduating is going to help the country as a whole but only a few individuals.

  9. I am able to supply Mayhs tuition to a very high standard and would be delighted to give this service free to this school for girls How do i apply? Ann

  10. Clearly Oprah was focused on achieving her OWN dream of educating a handful of girls. @Ted et al, ur still alive coz u can post a comment here, u got talents n gifts too. Why dont you get urself some 40mil and educate 10000 girls? we all get 24 hrs a day btw.

  11. IF Oprah, one person can change the trajectory of at least 72 smart children trained in leadership skills at very high standards, leadership which is about serving,inspiring e.t.c, then in my opinion her vision which is long term is that these seeds will blossom to change the trajectory of millions within their country. Such a sound vision can only come from nobility and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob blesses nobility. Those seeds will soon reap fruit that we all will live to witness.

  12. I think Oprah brought by God to South Africa to change other peaples lives,we thank you Oprah once again about you the value that you add in our country.I also wich for my child whose diong very good at school to have this chance because I do not have money to take her to model c school .She is doing Grade 8 this year and 13yrs old

    1. Be thankful to God everyday for your intelligent child, keep praying, doing what is right and trusting your child with God, he will not fail to take your child to standards you have never imagined.

  13. I would like to apply to show my leadership and my skills I have always wanted a good education and be succsesful in life to be a community person I would like to see the world with god in my heart and never lose hope cause they is non like him

  14. How do I get to register my Child to OWLAG? What qualifications or requirements do you need?

Mailing List

Sign up for email updates!


Not the continent with 54 countries

©Africa is a Country, 2016