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Oprah’s Leadership Academy Girls Graduate in South Africa, but Are Boys Being Left Behind?

Oprah’s Leadership Academy Girls Graduate in South Africa, but Are Boys Being Left Behind?

Photo: Reuters

Call it the O-effect. Passing with flying colors, seventy-two South African girls from disadvantaged backgrounds graduated from the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (the academy’s first graduates) in South Africa this past Saturday. True to the old adage that to educate a woman is to educate a nation, the queen of talk shows Oprah Winfrey spent US$40 million of her own fortune to build a girls-only school in South Africa.

The importance of education for girls in South Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa in general, cannot be overstated. Due to colonial policies and patriarchal traditional systems/beliefs (such as early marriage, teen pregnancies, and preferences for educating boys over girls), Africa’s women, especially those from poor backgrounds, lag behind in education and socio-economic mobility. Consequently, education for girls has proliferated (with good intention) in post-colonial Africa, largely as a result of UNICEF’s worldwide effort to invest in girls’ education. The notion, however, that boys from disadvantaged backgrounds somehow have better opportunities than their female counterparts is masking the staggering reality that many boys in South Africa (and other countries in Africa) are in prisons or streets (making a living from the streets) instead of graduating from colleges and universities. Is the preferred choice for educating and prioritizing girls endangering boys’ chance for education, especially those in rural areas who face the same hurdles as girls?

Nonetheless, this “O-Model” of education for success—which pumps a lot of resources into schools, equips them with state of the art facilities, and invests in qualified staff, hands-on management, and strong mentorship—indeed presents an historic opportunity for South Africa. So, there are good and obvious reasons for South Africa and other African governments to applaud, listen, and pay attention to OWLA’s achievement. It is a rare phenomenon for African schools for all Grade 12 students to pass and be accepted to universities in South Africa and abroad all at the same time. Oprah herself, in her celebratory comments, has hinted at working with the South African government and other African governments to promote education for the underprivileged.

But can this “O-Model” of education for success be replicated and emulated to address South Africa or any other sub-Saharan country’s educational crisis? The answer is both yes and no.

Yes because depilated schools, haphazard learning environments, and laissez-faire leadership and management style are what is failing kids from disadvantaged communities because they are trapped in these failing schools.

No because the O-Model focuses too much on the top performing students-those students who are academically talented; therefore, a struggling child from the same underprivileged background stands no chance to be admitted in the Oprah-like leadership academy/school.

This approach of pitting the top against the bottom is what is at the heart of the education crisis in South Africa and Africa in general. To be a struggling child (boy or girl) in the African education system is to be condemned to a life without opportunities or support. Instead of helping a struggling child by raising him/her to the level of an academically gifted student, for the most part resources (such as scholarships, bursaries, recognition, and other incentives) are spent on the top performing students or top performing schools.

What is the plight of a struggling child, an underachiever, in the African education system? Is he/she teachable or not? The answer is an affirmative yes. Every child is teachable and I believe that underachievers from poor communities, if provided opportunities at the same ferocity as what the O-Academy does, would turn out to be top achievers too.



Ndumba J. Kamwanyah

Ndumba Jonnah Kamwanyah, a native of Namibia in Southern Africa, is an independent consultant providing trusted advice and capacity building through training, research, and social impact analysis to customers around the world. Mos recently Ndumba returned from a consulting assignment in Liberia in support of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).
In his recent previous life Ndumba taught (as an Adjunct Professor) traditional justice and indigenous African political institutions in sub-Saharan Africa at the Rhode Island College-Anthropology Department.

He is very passionate about democracy development and peace-building, and considers himself as a street researcher interested in the politics of everyday life.
Twitter: NdumbaKamwanyah