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Soweto school scripted lies, students say

Acclaimed founder of an orphans program in South Africa is accused of coercing tales of woe to get donations.

December 03, 2006|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — The media called her the Angel of Soweto, a "national treasure" who rescued orphans of political violence, many of them sexually abused or caught up in crime, and gave them hope and an education.

Her students called her Mama Jackey and sang gospel-style hymns in her praise.

The 100% high school graduation rate that her private school claimed impressed many, including former President Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey and the makers of a documentary scheduled to air on HBO beginning today.

But Mama Jackey is no angel, some of her former students now charge.

Jackey Maarohanye and her school, the Ithuteng Trust, were plunged into a scandal after the students told the South African investigative television program "Carte Blanche" that they are not orphans. They said Maarohanye scripted and rehearsed horror stories about how they had watched their parents die.

Students, six of whom were contacted by The Times, repeated their allegations, saying she had coached them on how to sob for the television cameras or contributors to extract bigger donations. They told The Times that they recounted their false tragedies with tears and drama at the United Nations and for former President Clinton in 2001, on U.S. television and radio and for other visiting donors and media.

In last month's program, "Carte Blanche" also raised questions about how donor funds were spent and reported that the claimed 100% graduation rate was false.

Maarohanye was recently charged with kidnapping, assault, housebreaking and arson in two alleged incidents involving students. She has not entered a plea. A student who accused her of kidnapping and assault faces a charge of rape. But he insists that he has been framed, saying he hasn't even met his accuser, a current Ithuteng student.

Maarohanye strenuously denied the students' allegations in an interview aired on the program but refused to comment on the kidnapping and assault case against her.

Contacted by The Times, she declined to answer questions on the allegations but said the program was malicious and unethical, and expressed anger that "Carte Blanche" had contacted some of her donors for their reactions.

The Ithuteng Trust board has since informed sponsors of the allegations and is setting up an independent investigation.

Maarohanye ran an adult literacy program before approaching Mandela in 1999 for help in setting up an outreach program for children involved in crime. She recruited students from schools in Soweto, a township outside Johannesburg.

'Tough love'

Former students told The Times that the program was fun at first, and gave them life skills. But later they had to tell lies for media and sponsors.

One Ithuteng patron, Judge Yvonne Mokgoro, argues that the program still has great value for children and says it's important to distinguish its worth from Maarohanye's alleged methods.

But before scandal engulfed her, Maarohanye, famous for her "tough love" approach, was a magnet for celebrities. Winfrey, Brad Pitt, comedian Chris Tucker and many NBA stars were drawn to her Soweto school. Winfrey gave $1.1 million. The NBA was a major donor. NBA player Dikembe Mutombo donated $100,000 and U.S. taxpayers also kicked in more than $200,000 in grants for a dining hall and cafeteria, though not all the funds have been disbursed.

Former students say most of the children feared and loved Maarohanye. Repeating allegations that were aired on "Carte Blanche," former student leader Thando Kobese and others alleged to The Times that those who refused to tell the scripted fables often were expelled. They charge that Maarohanye sometimes sent tough students to hunt down and assault others who had displeased her.

The students' descriptions sometimes evoked an almost cultish atmosphere: They alleged that Maarohanye changed the words of gospel hymns, so that instead of praising Jesus, her name was substituted.

"Let's say we would rejoice and praise God, that God was great. She would want to change that and put her name on it," Kobese said.

On a 2001 "Carte Blanche" program, former student Lebogang Makheta said, "My mother was crushed by a spear that cut across her body and my father was riddled with bullets."

Interviewed Monday by The Times, he claimed, "She wrote the script for me that I am to say I am an orphan and my parents died and my father was shot with so many bullets. She said I should cry and make it like reality."

His mother is still alive and he said his father died only last year.

The earlier program painted a positive portrait of Maarohanye and the program, based on what students now say were lies.

Another former student, Precious Siphambo, 24, who traveled to the U.S. with an Ithuteng group in 2001, told The Times that during one media interview, five students lied at Maarohanye's behest. "We all said our sobby stories about how our parents died in the apartheid uprising, and it was all just lies."

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