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.

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.