Oprah Winfrey girls’ academy in the spotlight over claims of abuse of power

Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls is in the spotlight again after former head of operations Simon Matiko exposed a leadership crisis. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls is in the spotlight again after former head of operations Simon Matiko exposed a leadership crisis. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

Published Dec 17, 2023


THE Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) faces renewed scrutiny as a former employee reveals accusations of inappropriate leadership and abuse of power by executives.

This comes after the Sunday Independent established the dismissal of the former head of operations, Simon Matiko, who reportedly spoke out against the situation at the school.

Matiko is currently fighting the dismissal at the Johannesburg Labour Court after he lost the battle in the arbitration.

In the court papers that the Sunday Independent have seen, he also complained about abuse of authority, intimidation and victimisation, as well as the mistreatment of learners. Matiko said he was then fired without a clear reason.

He said it was only during private arbitration that the school said he was fired for non-performance, but they had failed to follow the prescribed code in the Labour Relations Act schedule 8.8, which talks about steps for managing performance during probation.

He declined to discuss the matter with the Sunday Independent, citing the school’s employee confidentiality and non-disclosure policy.

On Wednesday, OWLAG communication in the office of executive director Gugu Ndebele’s office said the matter was before the courts and would not comment in the media. “The court will be the final arbiter on the matter. The complainant agreed to the arbitration process, and to the extent that he is not happy with the arbitrator, he must address it with the arbitrator. OWLAG cannot speak for the arbitrator.”

Matiko was employed as head of operations in July 2021, and was dismissed in June 2022 following a probationary period of 12 months.

However, in his papers he said the reason behind his dismissal followed his formal grievance against Ndebele, who is a former deputy director-general at the Department of Basic Education, and human resource manager Ntsiki Dlepu.

He launched the complaints with the school’s board chairperson Dr Kate Windsor and she failed to investigate the matter which led to his dismissal 10 days later.

He raised the following complaint against Ndebele and Dlepu:

  • being civil, which affects the employment relationship or the reputation and business interest of the academy
  • use of foul and inappropriate language in the presence of others or clients, especially with learners and parents
  • intentional abuse of privileges and seniority status, abuse of position and authority
  • intimidation, victimisation, or the incitement of others to act unlawfully or to fail to act properly
  • intentionally creating disharmony in the workplace or within a group
  • industrial espionage or related deliberate breaches of confidentiality that may have serious consequences for the academy, its employees and stakeholders (learners, parents and sponsors).

He said Ndebele was also making statements, allegations, and comments that were derogatory to the academy, its management, co-workers or clients/suppliers. Matiko firther said these were detrimental to the interests of the academy and its stakeholders.

OWLAG is a private school designated for girls from underprivileged backgrounds to study Grade 8 up to Grade 12, and produces top matric results each year. The school was founded by US talk show host and businesswoman Oprah Winfrey.

After arbitrator Lance Friedman ruled in favour of OWLAG, Matiko appealed at the Johannesburg Labour Court, where Ndebele said he performed well technically and needed to focus more on relation and interpersonal skills.

Matiko told the court that he was never given a chance to improve. He said he did not receive any training, guidance and counselling having learned about his shortcomings.

Matiko attached the complaints in his court papers to back his argument.

His claims were supported by the 2021 Organisational Culture Assessment Report, which found that the culture of the school was perceived to be fear-based, where elements of victimisation, distrust and favouritism seem to exist and were experienced.

The report suggested that there was a need for a more positive culture, which should embrace and embody aspects like diversity, inclusion, equity and ultimately, a sense of belonging.

During the consultations, one employee said it was difficult to share opinions with management.

The employee said this was because there was following of protocol, especially labour law. “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 employee said: “I am not sure if it is OWLAG that motivates me to contribute more than is normally required or it is my work ethic to do a great job. 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.”

The school’s leadership academy has had problems in the past. Shortly after the high school opened in 2007, a school matron, Virginia Makopo, was charged with sexually molesting several girls. At the time Winfrey flew to South Africa to offer a personal apology to the students and parents, citing her own experience with sexual abuse.

Makopo was acquitted of the charges in October 2010, an action which “profoundly disappointed’ Winfrey.

Last month, the school came under fire after barring a pupil from entering the premises to write exams. The teenager was expelled late in August for alleged plagiarism but was allowed to work on herself and finish matric.

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