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Oprah’s school in Aaafricah

There’s a strange phenomenon that occurs when a writer whom you’ve admired turns his or her pen to a place or people that you know well.

If he or she get it wrong — buying into baseless myths, making ignorant assumptions or shallow analyses — you suddenly find yourself looking back at the rest of the writer’s oeuvre (which you previously considered a masterpiece of perspicacity and compassion) and wondering how well it really does capture the lives of, say, the women of Tbilisi.

What you considered to be authentic suddenly looks ersatz, and no amount of mutually admiring pre-praise on the jacket can change that. Or, as a wry American journalist of my acquaintance once explained: “You can’t get the shit back in the horse.”

Which rather sums up how I feel about Oprah. When I first saw her show and started to read stories about who she was and what she’d achieved, I was impressed. A poor, abused little black girl from the South — sustained by a love of books — becomes one of the world’s richest and most powerful women: what’s not to admire?

I liked the fact that she encouraged ordinary Americans to read (Lord knows they need to!), that she spoke about domestic violence and child abuse. I liked the way she spoke about weight and self-image and that she was sufficiently lacking in vanity to give viewers glimpses of what she looked like before the teams of hairdressers and make-up artists got to work. (The fawning celebrity interviews I liked less — no matter how famous she becomes, Oprah remains immensely star-struck.)

Because of the show’s odd scheduling on South African TV I can’t claim to be an avid or authoritative viewer, but I’ve seen a fair number of her shows. And I’ve been unfortunate enough to hear her talk (with increasing frequency) about “Aaafricah”. Never “Kenya” or “Lesotho” or “Senegal”, but always “Aaafricah”, as if the world’s second-largest continent were all one country, its constituent elements barely worth differentiating.

The first time I noticed it was when she had been on a trip with Madiba to the Eastern Cape, as a result of which she developed a bad case of mentionitis (“I’ve just been in Aaafricah with Nelson Mandela”) and spent a lot of time talking out how tough and scary it was, despite travelling with one of the country’s heaviest security details and being feted and put up in five-star accommodation throughout.

Then there was her visit to a South African hospital with a child whose mother was in the terminal stages of Aids. As the camera zoomed in on the emaciated face in the hospital bed and I wondered about the issue of informed consent, Oprah asked that most asinine of questions: how the woman had contracted the virus. Frankly, who gives a flying fig? She was dying a painful death, her child was about to become an orphan and she was subjected to intrusive and offensive questioning. (This is a common discourse in which some people with Aids are labelled “innocent victims”, which raises the question of what the rest are: “Guilty participants”?)

And it’s been pretty much downhill from there.

Who can forget the tragic episode when she visited a clinic treating women suffering from fistula in Ethiopia and showed horrid little snippets of these women walking and leaving trails of urine behind them? Of course, fistula is a huge health issue, which deserves international attention and resources, but I wondered if she might have shown more concern for the dignity of those women if they lived in, say, Missouri.

But the bit that made me shake unaccountably with rage was a montage of these women, overlaid by a blaring rendition of Shosholoza. Maybe Oprah’s sound team didn’t realise the horrible irony, or know that it was a song traditionally sung by mineworkers (and more recently by drunken South African sports fans), but what really got my dander up was the fact that they either thought a song from the southern tip of the continent was an appropriate accompaniment for a story about a country in the Horn of Africa, or they really had no idea that they are actually different places. (Can you imagine Greek bouzouki music being used in clip about Sweden?)

Now, the average American can’t tell the difference between Cape Town and Conakry, is astonished that we have cars, skyscrapers and television, and is gobsmacked to learn that there are white people from Africa. (On a trip to the US I found myself saying things like, “Have you heard about colonialism? And apartheid? How do you think we managed that without white people?”)

Which is why Oprah is so dangerous on the subject. Ever since she declared herself to be a Zulu (see Gary Younge’s brilliant column on the Guardian website) and staked her claim in Henley-on-Klip, she constantly peppers her show with references to “my school in Aaafricah” — which would be alright if she wasn’t using her extraordinarily powerful position to reinforce silly prejudices about us.

Like the time she proclaimed that she had put on weight because she’d been in Aaafricah and was too afraid to eat the meat (she’d been staying in a swish hotel in Sandton, where I’m sure salad, fruit and other slimmers’ delights were readily available).

Then there was the time David Chapelle was on her show explaining why he’d gone AWOL from the Comedy Central show. He claimed that one of the more ridiculous rumours was that he’d had a nervous breakdown and gone to Aaafricah to get treatment. Cue delighted laughter from the sainted Ms Winfrey, who agreed with her guest that it was unthinkable that anyone would choose to go a hospital in Aaafricah.

Clearly she is ignorant of the fact that well-heeled people from the so-called First World regularly come to this country for a range of medical treatments, from plastic surgery to rehab (and not to mention the little matter of the pioneering work done at Groote Schuur). The point is, she’s been here and so has he. And as she always tells guests on her show: “When you know better, you do better.” She should know better.

So I can’t say I’ve been surprised that her school continues to be dogged by controversy, when she so clearly doesn’t understand this continent or this country. The headlines of recent weeks have told us how Oprah wept when she heard about allegations of abuse at her school, how she brought in investigators from Chicago, how she’s arranged counselling for the girls at “her school” and how she “knows” that there are more incidents of abuse than have been reported (which is in itself fascinating as the staff member who has been charged hasn’t been found guilty just yet).

Perhaps it is time for Oprah to reflect that maybe her “dream” school with its way-over-the-top facilities is about fulfilling her personal fantasies and not about the actual needs of the children it is supposed to serve? (Her obsession with getting just the right curtains and the perfect bedside lamps for the dorms of her grand project are rather reminiscent of Marie Antoinette playing milkmaid at Petit Trianon.)

Perhaps instead of spending a ridiculous R280-million on building an elite enclave (complete with yoga studio and hair salon, nogal!) that limits the number of phone calls and home visits children can make and runs the risk of alienating them from their families and communities, she could have found a more appropriate way to empower and educate the girls of Johannesburg. (Not to mention doing more thorough background and reference checks when hiring staff.)

Drop-in after-school centres with dedicated staff to offer tutoring and support could have provided much-needed opportunities to thousands of poor girls across the city and its townships. Or why not simply provide bursaries for promising young girls to attend one the many excellent schools in the country, both public and private?

But that would, of course, have deprived her of the opportunity to play Lady Bountiful, to name the school (rather vulgarly) after herself, to dine out on tales of “my school in Aaafricah” and would have drastically undermined her notion that no one on this godforsaken continent can do anything nearly as well as an American could.