*Several students who were allegedly abused at the Oprah Winfrey girls school in South Africa are due to testify along with the talk show host in her upcoming defamation trial in Philadelphia.
As previously reported, the school’s former headmistress Nomvuyo Mzamane filed a defamation lawsuit against Winfrey accusing her of trashing her name in the press by saying she “lost confidence” in Mzamane following the sexual abuse allegations and planned to “clean house from top to bottom.”
Winfrey plans to defend her remarks about Mzamane on free speech and other grounds, arguing that she merely voiced her opinions. Mzamane’s lawyers, who note Winfrey’s huge media reach, contend listeners would think they were based on facts she gleaned from the school’s internal investigation.
The case is headed for a two-week jury trial in federal court in Philadelphia starting March 29.
At today’s final pretrial hearing, Winfrey lawyer Chip Babcock said minors do not typically testify in open court in South Africa. The girls, now 14 and 15, may seek to testify through videotaped depositions, especially given the sensitive nature of their testimony, Babcock said, according to the AP.
“We’re going to see how the kids get acclimated here, and how (their) parents feel about things,” Babcock told U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno.
Mzamane, born in Lesotho, formerly worked at the private Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, and was living in the city when she filed suit two years ago. She earned $150,000 a year as the head of Winfrey’s academy.
Winfrey hopes to show that the school leader failed to act on myriad complaints about dorm matron Tiny Virginia Makopo, who is accused of sexually and physically abusing students. Makopo has pleaded not guilty to 14 charges.
Winfrey, in court papers, said she had planned to hire nurses to serve as dorm matrons for the 150 seventh- and eighth-grade girls who were selected from impoverished backgrounds to attend her school. Mzamane instead hired eight young women from a local company called Party Design, she said.
“These young women were later found to be totally unqualified to handle the position, something Ms. Mzamane had been warned about,” Winfrey’s lawyers wrote.
As the school’s inaugural year unfolded, Makopo attacked another dorm parent, injured three people while driving a golf cart after a champagne party at Mzamane’s home and retaliated rather than apologize to girls who complained of mistreatment, while Mzamane did little or nothing, Winfrey’s lawyers allege in their trial memorandum.
Mzamane’s lawyers wrote in their trial memo: “To this day, Ms. Winfrey admits that she has no evidence that Ms. Mzamane knew about any claims of sexual abuse at the academy while she was headmistress there, much less that she tolerated or covered up such abuse.”
Winfrey was not in court Friday, but as the named defendant must attend the trial each day. She has rearranged the taping of her Chicago-based daily TV talk show, according to her lawyers, who asked the judge to try to keep the trial from dragging beyond two weeks.
Robreno agreed to hold court on Saturdays if necessary. Several witnesses are coming from South Africa on visas linked to the trial schedule.