Oprah school matron freed

12 October 2010 - 01:14 By KHETHIWE CHELEMU

Tiny Virginia Makopo, the former matron of the prestigious Oprah Winfrey Academy for Girls, ended her "three years of hell" yesterday when she was acquitted of sexually abusing pupils - much to the disappointment of the talk-show host.

After more than two years of answering to 14 charges, including indecent assault, assault, crimen injuria and committing immoral and indecent acts, Makopo was found not guilty on all counts in the Sebokeng Magistrate's Court yesterday.

In acquitting Makopo, 28, magistrate Thelma Simpson said the state had failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt, and pupils had not corroborated each other's evidence.

An elated Makoposaid that she was happy that the trial was over, but it had left her ''humiliated, broke and unemployed".

The nine alleged victims - pupils at the exclusive school for historically disadvantaged girls in Henley-on-Klip, south of Johannesburg - were aged between 13 and 15 when they levelled their accusations at Makopo.

In a statement released shortly after Simpson read her verdict yesterday, Winfrey wrote: "We began this child molestation trial in July 2008. More than two years later, I am profoundly disappointed at the outcome of the trial".

In acquitting Makopo, Simpson said: "There were numerous contradictions in the state witnesses' testimony.

"The learners were unable to provide accurate dates of the incidents.

"Some witnesses exaggerated their evidence. One witness contradicted herself as to how and where she was assaulted by the accused."

Simpson said the alleged victims chose not to seek medical assistance after the alleged abuse.

She questioned the behaviour of one of the girls during the trial. Simpson said the witness initially seemed to be calm when testifying and suddenly jumped up and threw her headphones on the floor and said: "This attorney is p****** me off. I want to go home. I want to go home.''

Simpson described the outburst as disrespectful and sarcastic.

The case, heard in camera, drew international attention.

Winfrey established the elite academy in January 2007.

In her statement yesterday, Winfrey said: "I will forever be proud of the nine girls who testified with the courage and conviction to be heard."

She heaped praise on prosecutors Etienne Venter and Amanda Strydom, and on the police, for "seeking justice and treating the victims with the utmost care and respect".

"Our entire [Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy] staff is committed to providing a nurturing educational environment so that all our girls may continue to flourish. And they are indeed thriving."

The allegations that Makopo had touched the girls intimately surfaced nine months after the academy opened.

Makopo was also accused of asking girls to kiss her and of calling one of them a prostitute.

A physical education teacher at the academy - one of the 20 state witnesses who testified in the trial - said that one of the pupils had told her that Makopo had asked her to look at pornographic pictures and describe what she felt as she looked at them.

Makopo was also charged with physical abuse for fighting with a colleague.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Makopo could barely contain her relief.

"I am so happy, I just do not know what to say. I can't believe that this case is finally over and that I am finally free," she said.

"The news of my acquittal has not completely sunk into my system.

"I don't know what to do. I just want to go home and relax."

Makopo was suspended from the academy on September 25 2007 and arrested on November 1 2007.

Since her dismissal from the academy, Makopo has been unemployed.

Her car was repossessed during one of her earlier court appearances.

Makopo said she was not sure if she would pursue legal action, but was "weighing her options on the way forward".

"I do not know what steps I am going to take right now, but life for me for the past three years was nothing but hell. I have been struggling," she said .

"This case has left me humiliated, broke and unemployed."

She refused to say whether she would forgive Winfrey and the staff of the academy.

At the time of Makopo's arrest, Winfrey said: "It is my deepest hope that the accused is brought to justice and that this serves as a reminder that any time a child has the courage to step forward, it is our duty as adults to listen and take immediate action." - Additional reporting by Sowetan