An Inspired Model . . . or a Misguided One? Oprah Winfrey’s Dream School for Impoverished South African Girls

John F. Kennedy School of Government (Harvard)



Case Study Sector


In 2000, media superstar Oprah Winfrey promised the recently retired Nelson Mandela, first president of post-Apartheid South Africa, that she would build his country a topnotch boarding school for disadvantaged girls. Her twin purposes were to use the power of education to help impoverished young girls with exceptional promise—girls much like herself as a child—to realize their potential and transform their lives and, at the same time, to train a cohort of strong new leaders who would contribute to the success of post-Apartheid South Africa. To that end, Winfrey built a $40 million dream school—spacious, thoughtfully designed, and elegantly appointed, with excellent teachers, small classes, modern facilities, and extensive grounds. In South Africa and elsewhere, the opening of the extraordinary school garnered much attention, praise, and imitators, but also drew significant criticism. Some of the critics were appalled at using so much money to create so posh a facility for so few children, when so many were in desperate need. Others chided Winfrey for failing to take a community-based approach, and for separating the children from their homes and communities. Winfrey, confident in her model, stayed the course.

The case allows students to consider a number of issues: what is the appropriate role of private philanthropy, how to think about private resource allocation in a poor country, what kind of school is in the best interest of the students, and what kind of school is in the best interests of the country.



  • Field Building
  • Partnership


  • Africa
  • Northern America

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