‘A Culture of Distrust and Fear’: Oprah Winfrey Turns Off Her Comments After Celebrating the Graduation of One of Her Former Students Following Years of Accusations About Her Leadership Academy for Girls

When Oprah Winfrey shared that she wanted to open a school in South Africa, former president Nelson Mandela did everything that he could to bring her dream to fruition in 2007.

Little did the South African freedom fighter know back then that one of the girls from his native land would enroll in the school and 17 years later receive a doctor of medicine degree from one of the top universities in America.

oprah winfrey south africa school
Oprah faces more criticism about her Academy for Girls in South Africa. (Photo: @oprah/Instagram)

That is the story of Bongeka Zuma, who previously attended the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls and graduated from Stanford University on Sunday, June 16. Winfrey was present for the commencement ceremony at Maples Pavilion on the Palo Alto, California, campus, where Zuma was one of  322 graduates who earned medical, doctorate and master’s degrees, according to the university.

The billionaire proud school founder and institutional mother took to Instagram to document the moment to her 22.7 million followers. In the caption, she wrote, “I’ve been to 22 graduations for all my daughter-girls who came from the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in South Africa to colleges and universities across the United States. This one was extra special.”

According to Winfrey, her “daughter-girl Bongeka” has been an outstanding student matriculating in top schools on two continents other than the one where she was born.

“First [she] graduated summa cum laude at Spelman, then she got her master’s degree at Oxford, and this weekend she received her hard-earned Doctor of Medicine from Stanford University,” the media maven continued.

“One of the great joys of my life was to see her walk across that stage!” Winfrey continued. “Knowing where she’s come from, a small community in KwaZulu-Natal, and how strongly she believed in becoming a doctor. She never gave up, and with a support team of good friends, fellow OWLAG sisters and professors, we all celebrated her achievement with great pride. Congratulations, Dr. Zuma. Well done! Well done!”

Oprah at Zuma Graduation
Oprah attends graduation for Bongeka Zuma, a former student who attended the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. (Photos: @oprah/Instagram)

To be accepted into Winfrey’s school, Zuma had to beat out 3,000 other seventh and eighth-grade applicants to get one of the only 152 slots of the tuition-free school, according to Oprah.com.

Zuma is not the only young lady from the first enrollees in the school to do well. In 2021, Lindiwe Tsope became the first graduate of OWLAG to be awarded a Ph.D., a doctorate in sociology from Rhodes University in South Africa, CNBC reports.

While many of the girls have brought honor to the academy and to Winfrey’s legacy, shadows of controversy have plagued the school. Just months after its grand opening, allegations of abuse surfaced, leading to the arrest of a dormitory matron, Tiny Makopo, a 27-year-old who was accused of trying to kiss and fondle six girls (aged 13-15) at the academy.

Oprah has since turned her comments of on that particular post about Zuma’s graduation. But that didn’t stop speculation about the school.

“Something fishy about that school though. Google and get shocked,” one person wrote on X, while another said, “True that school is fishy.”

The school also faced criticism after several parents compared the school’s restrictions on visits, phone calls and e-mail contact to prison rules.

“Michelle phones me in tears sometimes, and then I don’t know what to say to her,” said one mother, Angela Conradie.

“It was a nightmare,” added Frances Mans, the foster mother of student Gweneth Mulder. “We had only two hours to see my child. Surely this isn’t a prison or an institution?” 

Oprah vowed to cover school-related expenses for students, such as food, luxury lodging and university fees for graduates.

There’s also the recent firing of the former head of operations, Simon Matiko after one year was reported in December 2023. Court documents reveal complaints about abuse of authority, intimidation and victimization, as well as the mistreatment of learners. 

Matiko alleges he was fired for his non-performance during private arbitration at the school. 

Further investigation found other employees who voiced their difficulty with management. One said, “ “Working under pressure, threats, and other issues….we don’t discuss issues with our management as we fear we will lose our jobs as we are not given clarity or relevant answers.”

Another said, “OWLAG used to be a place where one contributed more than required because there was a culture of working together, listening, and respecting professional opinions. This has changed. There is a culture of distrust and fear.”

This scandal shook the institution to its core, raising serious concerns about the safety and oversight within the academy. Three years later, Makopo was found not guilty of the crime, according to TMZ.

The founder was livid and released a statement about the verdict, saying, “We began this child molestation trial in 2008. More than two years later, I am profoundly disappointed at the outcome of the trial.”

Winfrey added, “I will forever be proud of the nine girls who testified with the courage and conviction to be heard.”

This would not be the only scandal to beset the school. Some of the controversies linked to the celebrity and the school were just internet lies. One example is that “Oprah Winfrey’s private jet was at Epstein’s island 11 different times,” speculating that she “kidnapped” some of the girls to be with the disgraced financier and sex trafficker. This was proven to be false, with the former talk show having no links to the Epstein ever.

However, there were a couple of scandals with legs.

In the spring of 2009, the academy faced further controversy when seven students were expelled for misconduct, sparking debates about the institution’s disciplinary policies.

While the media wanted to know details about why four students were expelled and three others suspended, Winfrey did not share, only saying, “Those girls in their own testimony during the (disciplinary) hearing said they knew they were breaking the rules and that they deliberately broke the rules,” according to NBC Washington.

Critics argued that the expulsions were overly harsh and did not consider the cultural context of the students.

Winfrey defended the decision, emphasizing the importance of maintaining a safe and respectful environment to uphold the academy’s high standards.

The high standards were the pride and job of President Mandela, who died after the school had been open for six years. He pushed Winfrey to create a learning space for poor girls to receive a quality education and prepare them for leadership positions in South Africa, a country still struggling to move past apartheid and white-minority rule.

Winfrey once said, “The majority of girls are thriving, really fulfilling the dream and vision I had. They really have exceeded any expectations I had for them.”

Zuma is an example of this.

In the video posted after her med school graduation, Zuma stands next to her bonus mother and many of her OWLAG sisters, and, after taking a commemorative picture, they all broke out in dance.

One sister, standing next to the OWN queen, exclaimed, “This is Nelson Mandela’s biggest dream.”

And from the smiles on all who were gathered faces, she was telling the truth.

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