Oprah Winfrey described it as "one of the most devastating experiences" of her life. Just hours earlier a female employee at the television magnate's exclusive school in South Africa had appeared in court, charged with 13 counts of assaulting and sexually abusing students at Winfrey's $40 million Leadership Academy for Girls. According to a report in a local newspaper, the staffer had allegedly fondled one of the students and thrown a girl against a wall after grabbing her by the throat. Fuller details of the charges against the dormitory matron, Tiny Virginia Makopo, are unlikely to emerge before she appears in court again next month. For now, the 27-year-old is out on $460 bail after pleading not guilty last Monday. A tearful Winfrey, for her part, has apologized to the parents of the students and praised the South African police for their swift action. "I am grateful for [police] compassion and sensitivity to the girls during this difficult time," she said in a statement.
Inside South Africa that praise for a rapid police response may perhaps be the most remarkable aspect of this sad case. In a country plagued by violent crime, alleged sexual offenders are rarely brought to court swiftly—if at all. In spite of having one of the world's highest incidences of child rape—including several horrific incidents of attacks on infants—South Africa has a conviction rate of only 5 to 6 percent of all reported sex cases. And those numbers tell only part of the story. Organizations working in the field estimate that the 98,000 rape and sexual abuse charges reported to police between April 2006 and March 2007 reflect as little as 10 percent of the real figure.
Amnesty International estimated that some 302,000 girls under 18 were raped in 2005 and '06, and much sex abuse takes place in schools. A major survey of children by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP) in Cape Town, published last year, revealed that 41 percent of children under 18 years had fallen victim to crime in the preceding 12 months, says Patrick Burton, director of research. "Some 4.2 percent of 4,000 children reported being sexually assaulted in the previous 12 months—a proportion that we believe vastly underestimates the problem." The CJCP research indicates that children who have experienced crime have a statistically high chance of themselves turning to crime or antisocial behavior. "We have also picked up a worrying trend toward young people increasingly committing a range of violent crimes, including rape, against other young people. The number of young offenders being arrested has grown in the past decade," says Burton.
Winfrey's handling of the Academy problem could not be more different from the "typical" South African child sex abuse case, which is shrouded in secrecy and shame and is often dealt with reluctantly and ineptly. Rarely, too, do police act as fast as they did in this case, in which they were assisted by Winfrey's team of investigators and counselors. "One of the reasons why sexual abuse has become a pandemic in South Africa is because it is not dealt with openly and effectively," says Joan van Niekerk, a child abuse expert and director of the group Childline. "In the case of sexual abuse, many parents perceive that reporting a case to the police will lead to a lengthy ordeal that is as damaging to their child as the abuse itself." The result is that sexual offenders are frequently free to act with impunity, fueling—as with all forms of violent crime—a vicious cycle of abuse in which the youthful victim is prone to become a perpetrator later in life.
The Winfrey school case has also underscored another disturbing trend: the growing number of women accused of abuse. While the overwhelming majority of sexual offences against girls are still committed by men or boys, van Niekerk says her organization has encountered "an increasing number of female offenders in the last decade, perhaps because of the sexually freer environment that girls and women are experiencing and the portrayal of women as sex objects. Most also come from extremely difficult, disorganized circumstances in which affection, love and relationships are deeply rooted in sexual behavior."
Why is the situation so bad in South Africa? Experts in the field point to a range of factors. One often-cited suggestion is that those who rape children are buying into the myth that sex with a virgin can cure HIV/AIDS, leading to the spate of ghastly attacks on babies and toddlers. Some 5 million South Africans are infected with the virus, and an estimated 5,000 patients die from it weekly. Those deaths have orphaned millions of children, leaving them to grow up in precarious circumstances and without family structure or members to guide and protect them.
But belief in this canard is hardly the main reason. "There is no single cause [of abuse]," says Edith Kriel, a social worker at the Child Trauma Centre in Cape Town. "Rather, there are layers of factors that place children at enormous risk." One is cultural, with parents reluctant to talk about sex and often not believing children when they talk about a sexual encounter with an adult, she says. Another is the social structure of families, in which adults have unassailable authority, and the breakdown of families: most children grow up in poor single-parent families with no male role model and an often-absent working mother. "Poverty has an enormous impact in various ways, such as the stress it places on families, and it also makes them vulnerable to taking payment in return for accepting abusive behavior," Kriel says. Dysfunctional schools create environments in which abuse can easily occur and not be dealt with when it does—especially as teachers are often the culprits. Other analysts point to media representations of sexuality, a culture of violence seeded during the apartheid years, and the apparent inability of the government, including the education and justice systems, to deal with cases of abuse.
Ironically, the global spotlight on the case at the Winfrey school may have some positive side effects. Winfrey, herself molested and raped as a child, is being praised for her empathetic and emphatic response to events. At her Chicago press conference this week, she said she had promised to buy cell phones for all the girls affected by the scandal and had given them her personal number so that they could call her at any time. "Oprah Winfrey is a role model in South Africa," says van Niekerk. "When she says that sexual abuse is unacceptable, people listen. When she acts to stamp it out, people realize that we can do something about abuse."