Screaming Beyond State Power: The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) and The Role of Private Capital in Curbing Inequalities

By: Gcobani Qambela*

It is hard to believe that anyone is so at home with the world that they do not feel revulsion at the hunger, violence and inequality that surrounds them. – John Holloway

Two OWLAG Students
Two Students at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG), South Africa, sit and work quietly at the school’s library (Photo credit: Forbes)

The 2012 South African final high school matriculation  results were important in many respects. This is primarily because many of the 2012 graduates were the first of the “free” generation of students born in or after 1994, the historic year in which South Africa, in her first democratic elections, elected Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress (ANC) as president. 1

Therefore, the release of the results on the 3rd of January 2013 offered an important moment of introspection for the country. A moment to reflect about how far the country has progressed towards the realisation of its constitutionally promised goal of creating a non-racial equitable society. As many have noted however, the results clearly showed that the country is still far from attaining this goal, especially for the poor black population.

The LA Times 2 reported that “Of the 1.1 million children who were born in 1994 and later entered first grade, fewer than half made it far enough to take the graduation exam. Of those who did, the percentage that passed was 73.9%, up from 70.2% in 2012. But some education experts despaired … given the relatively low bar set for passage. … To pass, [students] need to receive scores of 40% on three exams and 30% on three others”. The discrepancy in these high pass rates at public schools is shown in the fact that in 2012 the students writing under the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) managed to secure a 98.2% pass rate, and 83.6% of these students (primarily from private schools) achieved University entry passes3, while only 26.6% of the 73.9% who passed from government schools gained university entry passes.4

The responsibility of fixing the education system in South Africa is often left to the state, but it is clear that the South African state is failing (as many commentators continue to note), and that it will take more than just state power to fix it. A weakness in most commentary and analysis on South Africa’s education system is that it has placed the burden of fixing the education system solely on the government. Here I want to extend the conversation to investigate the potential role of private capital in curbing inequalities in South Africa’s education system, and I want to use the important (yet largely unexplored) case study of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG), South Africa.

Stellenbosch University’s Nicholas Spaull in his paper “Education in SA: A tale of two systems” notes that despite the fact that the South African government inherited an unequal education system, where for instance (pre-1994) “the amount spent per student in a white school was two and a half times larger than on black students in urban areas and five times larger than black students in the most impoverished homeland”, upon a closer look “at government expenditures on education, the post-apartheid government has successfully managed to equalize government expenditures across provinces and has adopted a pro-poor public spending approach”. 5

Spaull 6 notes that the problem in the South African education system does not necessarily lie in the final matriculation examinations, but rather in the low-quality of education students receive from Grade 1 to Grade 11 that eventually culminates into poor matriculation results. Spaull thus contend that behind the national averages (such as the high overall pass rate in 2012) hides “severe inequalities that plague all elements of South African life, and this is particularly true in education. It is now commonly accepted that when looking at learner performance in South Africa, there is a minority of learners (roughly 25%) who attend mostly functional schools and perform acceptably on local and international tests, while the majority of learners (roughly 75%) who attend dysfunctional schools perform extremely poorly on these tests”. 7

As a consequence, South Africa has two education systems, one in which a few students from wealthy backgrounds are able to attend functioning and high quality primary and secondary schools and are consequently also able to attend university and go on to occupy top positions on the top end of the labour market while those in the second schooling system (about 75%) from poor backgrounds can only access low quality primary and secondary schools and consequently have no access to higher education. 8 These are the students who are at most risk of being unemployed, working in the informal sector, or working in low-wage/low-skills jobs on the minimum wage. Education in South Africa therefore has come to offer very few chances for social mobility and is rather the reinforcer of the unequal status quo.9

Oprah Winfrey is an American global television and philanthropic icon, who at one point was poised to be the only person of colour in America who could transcend American white supremacy to be the first African American President of the United States of America. Yet she never sought public office in order to effect change — rather, she operated from her personal sphere of influence outside government office. She has helped hundreds of people out of poverty and through her various scholarship programmes and her Leadership Academy for Underprivileged Girls in South Africa, has changed the trajectory of the lives of many poor young people. I want to focus on the lessons that the school can teach us about how to effect change outside state power as we grapple with ways to “change the world without taking power” beyond state power.

Holloway reminds us that “To begin to think about power and changing the world without taking power (or indeed anything else), we need to start from doing. Doing implies being able-to-do… If we are deprived of our capacity-to-do, or rather, if we are deprived of our capacity to project-beyond-and-do, of our capacity to do negatively, ecstatically, then we are deprived of our humanity, our doing is reduced (and we are reduced) to the level of a bee. If we are deprived of our capacity-to-do, then our scream becomes a scream of despair.” 10 This is something that Oprah Winfrey seems to understand.

In a country where only 14% of the black population graduates from high school 11 Winfrey has thus far graduated two classes in 2011 and 2012 since opening OWLAG in South Africa six years ago. Both these classes produced 100 percent pass rate, all on par with university entry requirements and the school produced a 100 percent college acceptance rate from all pupils (a few of those having landed full scholarships to study at leading universities in the United States).12 The class of 2011 (72 pupils) produced 188 distinctions amongst them, and 60% of the girls at the school had overall averages of above 75%. This has been followed by the 2012 (68 pupils) class which produced 137 distinctions between them and very high averages above 75%.13

Holloway (2002) notes that “In 1998 the assets of the 200 richest people were more than the total income of 41% of the world’s people (two and a half billion). In 1960, the countries with the wealthiest fifth of the world’s people had per capita incomes 30 times that of the poorest fifth: by 1990 the ratio had doubled to 60 to one, and by 1995 it stood at 74 to one.” 14 This is not something that seems to have changed for the better since 2002 when Holloway was writing, but has rather gotten worse. The Bloomberg Billionaires Index shows for instance that 100 of the richest people in the world in 2012 alone added $241 billion to their combined net worth of 2012 making their total net worth $1.9 trillion. 15

This makes this small group of individuals wealthier that most nations in developing parts of the world, which means there should be a greater demand from private capital to contribute more towards the elimination of inequalities, and I am making the case here that OWLAG is an important model that many other wealthy individuals can replicate. Holloway 16 (2002) tells us that “In the beginning is the scream. We scream. When we write or when we read, it is easy to forget that the beginning is not the word, but the scream. Faced with the mutilation of human lives by capitalism, a scream of sadness, a scream of horror, a scream of anger, a scream of refusal: NO.”

OWLAG was the beginning of Oprah’s scream at the poor level of education that poor South Africans are subjected to. As Holloway notes “Our scream is a scream of horror-and-hope” and it is important because our starting point should be a “rejection of a world that we feel to be wrong, negation of a world we feel to be negative.” 17 Winfrey’s scream did not stop with the horrors of the South African education system, but went further to scream and offer hope to young lives trapped by poor circumstance. We need more people to scream and hope.

*Gcobani is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum (BLF) contributor. His previous articles can be found here.


Gcobani Qambela

Gcobani Qambela is a Graduate Student in South Africa with an interest in African masculinities, HIV/AIDS research and public health in general.

  1. Dixon, Robyn. 2013“Education experts lament South Africa test results” LA Times : Stable URL: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-south-africa-schools-20130104,0,778411.story
  2. Ibid
  3. Gernetzky, Karl. 2012. “IEB matric pass rate 98.2%” in Business Day, 29 December 2012. Stable URL: http://www.bdlive.co.za/national/education/2012/12/29/ieb-matric-pass-rate-98.2 Accessed: February 9, 2013.
  4. Bauer, Nickolaus. 2013. “Matric 2012 pass rate increases by 3.7 percentage points” in Mail & Guardian, 02 Jan 2013. Stable URL: http://mg.co.za/article/2013-01-02-matric-2012-pass-rate-increases-by-37 Accessed: February 9, 2013.
  5. Spaull, Nicholas. 2013. “Education in SA: A tale of two systems” in Politicsweb, 31 August 2012. Stable URL: http://www.politicsweb.co.za/politicsweb/view/politicsweb/en/page71619?oid=323272&sn=Detail&pid=71616 Accessed: 3 February 2013
  6. Ibid. (citing Van der Berg et al, 2011: 4)
  7. Ibid
  8. Ibid
  9. Ibid
  10. Holloway, John. 2003. Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today. Pluto Press
  11. O’Connor, Clare. 2012. “The Education of Oprah Winfrey: How She Saved her South African School”, Forbes October 2012. Stable URL: http://www.forbes.com/sites/clareoconnor/2012/09/18/the-education-of-oprah-winfrey-how-she-saved-her-south-african-school/ Accessed: 3 February 2013.
  12. Ibid
  13. Please see: http://www.owla.co.za/news.htm
  14. Holloway, John. 2003. Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today. Pluto Press, pg. 1
  15. “World’s 100 Richest People Added $241 Billion to Their Net Worth in 2012: Report” Huffington Post Stable URL: http://t.co/l3k7npGB
  16. Holloway, John. 2002. Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today. Pluto Press, pg. 1
  17. Holloway, John. 2003. Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today. Pluto Press, pg. 1

12 Responses to Screaming Beyond State Power: The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) and The Role of Private Capital in Curbing Inequalities

  1. Thought provoking read. The pertinent, yet missing, question is how owlag and similar institutions are able to produce a 100% pass rate. Is it their uncompromising commitment to high standards? Is it because they poach the best teacher best? Do they only select learner whose academic performance is above average? Or more importantly, is it because th SA education system is designed and engineered to benefit the middle class( a predominantly white group)? Why is it the simple concept of SGBs work in middle class schools? Teaching takes place there but not in our black schools. I think our education system in its entirety ( including its management) is not propoor.

  2. Ritsie, your questions add incredibly well to this piece, which I am also found very thought provoking — thanks Gcobani. If at all I were to venture a guess, I suspect the answer to Ritsie’ questions lies mainly in the selection of teachers and learners. Once you have learners hungry to learn (of any class) and teachers ready to rise to the challenge, success is almost inevitable. From personal experience, it becomes that much easier as a teacher to sacrifice even your weekends or other personal time to ensure that your students get their desired nourishment. Of course, I imagine it is also much easier to be hungry for learning once you stop being physically hungry –in which case, may be this is what makes education not pro-poor.

  3. Thank you for this amazing article. However, I want to know whether calling upon the wealthy class to invest their money to the fighting inequalities and in this case focusing on education, does this not remove the burden of the state to provide good social services. If a right to education is a basic human right is it not then the duty of the state to make sure that it provides the service. I am not saying the rich should not help, but hoping that institutions like the one Oprah has are a solution is not a primary solution. We need our government to fulfil the protection of all basic human rights. When we vote we want people who will not see children fit to pass with 30%, who will know that education does not begin when you write your matric exam, who will know that education is not sending textbooks only but we need physical infrastructure etc. I believe that schools belong to the community and we all should help, but we should not remove the duty of the state.

  4. Thanks for this poignant piece GQ, starting this year of change on a good note :) I had a couple of questions similar to the comments above, most especially around the importance of good teachers within any education system. For South Africa most especially, is the difference really how much money is invested as opposed to the types of teachers one has along the way? I cite the example here of other less developed African countries with soaring literacy rates and high percentages of university graduates. The latter emerge from public schools and public universities ,with little or no private investment into education but still with the relevant qualifications. Is the problem truly wealth and how much is invested as opposed to what we teach in the schools?

  5. Will Oprah pleas look again after 7yrs the maximum amount earned to qualify for scholaship can’t it be more as my child has got the scholaship but as the increase she was disqualified icant afford ihave to take loans to educat others

  6. Hi,my name is ali and am 14yrs old. Every single day,I read the term screaming beyond state power… It gives me hope.. And am truly thankful to owlag students,it has been my dream,I have parents who are always fighting,my dad is never supportive,my mom is a housewife,I cry and pray to God to change my situation at home everyday,sometimes we go to school without food… But I read this,and to see how you can achieve your dreams makes me happy.. So am applying for grade 10 for 2016… I hope and pray that I get accepted so that I can concentrate on my school work,and my future… I have siblings 2 are older than me,one is younger than me… I go out to cry to God,what about my innocent brothers and sister,so can I please get a chance at Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for girls… To Change my mom’s and dad’s,actually my whole family’s lives.. Please oprah winfrey help me,I can sing,dance and can act a little,but my dad seems to never ever want to see us achieve our dreams,instead he tells us painful words to shut our “silly dreams”,But I believe in God,and I KNOW he’ll answer my prayers.. Good work to the author.. And thank you very much.. God bless you and give you long life to live… -Ali

    • Dear Alidzulwi,

      Thank you so much for your wonderful comment and the self-reflection.

      I am encouraged that if you are this motivated, there is no doubt that you will get into OWLAG and that you will one day be able to not only look after your self but be able to give back to your siblings!

      Do keep us posted at the BLF on how your application goes.

      Keep dreaming and working hard and thank you for reading and finding meaning in my article.

      Much thanks,
      Gcobani

  7. Thank you very much Gcobani… You are my aspiration.. Thank you a million a million times.. God bless you

  8. tough times heyy its difficult when you have no support from your father with your mother as your only rock but i believe what goes around comes around my mother has been my backbone all these years my dad would just come and go the moneys so tight but all he cares about is himeself and cars so im applying for grade 10 2016 at the owlag to make my dreams become a reality and to treat my mother for all she has sacrificed for us

    • Dear Kelly,

      I am so sorry to hear about your father and that he is not taking responsibility, however I am very encouraged by your courage and motivation.

      With such dedication, I don’t doubt that you will get into OWLAG, support your mother (and yourself) and build a very different future.

      Keep working hard and keep us informed at the BLF!

      Looking forward to hearing about all the amazing things you will do!

  9. I really understand what you are going through just keep on dreaming also push hard at school don’t you dare give up! I suffer from bullying because of my weight and even though I cannot change what people have to say to me I can change my attitude towards how I respond to comments like those. Just be positive and brush it off and always wake up with a smile on your face and your head held up high

  10. Hey gcobani,dear kelly
    I’m also going through the same thing,have faith in God and trust yourself
    Gcobani
    I have a sister whose report wasn’t so good,she got 40 percent on her math subject… Although,her other subjects were very excellent,she has leadership potential,she is thinking of going to work at one young world,and her dreams will be shuttered because of her 40 percent,the reason y she didn’t really excel on her math was…: we had no transport to go to school,and we arrived late,they didn’t give her more time to finish her exam,do you think we both still have a chance to go to owlag,please help us
    ThankYou
    -Alidzulwi

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