Soweto school scripted lies, students say

Times Staff Writer

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."

She said students were afraid to refuse. "You can't say anything to Jackey because she's a dictator. It felt like we were on remote control or we were hypnotized."

Siphambo alleged that those who questioned Maarohanye were ridiculed. "She said we'd never be successful, we'd be the poorest of the poor."

Some students who refused to tell a fabricated story were suspended or expelled, the students told "Carte Blanche" and The Times. "She'd talk to us and manipulate us to hate that student," Makheta said. "She was a powerful lady and a powerful mama. Even if what she was telling us to do was wrong, we'd do it anyway."

Interviewed by The Times, Charlie Mokari, 24, demonstrated that he could still remember the script he said she wrote for him.

"The screams of my family still haunt me," he said in apparent anguish, as he described seeing his family burned in his own house in political violence. In reality, he said, he is still living with his parents.

Problems with fees

Students said university fees funded by donors went unpaid by Ithuteng, forcing many to quit their studies.

In February 2000, about 20 students at the University of the Western Cape wrote to the South African president's office calling for an investigation of why fees promised them by the Ithuteng Trust were not paid.

Rensche Bell, who was the university's financial officer in 2000, said that when Ithuteng students' fees did not come in, he talked to them and found out they had almost no money and were surviving on a few loaves of bread daily shared among about 20 students.

Yet he said donors confirmed to him that they had paid the Ithuteng Trust for the fees.

"I called Jackey on her land-line and cell. When she found out why I was calling, she acted a bit strange and said the line was bad -- when I could hear clearly -- and basically she would hang up. I never had a proper conversation with her," Bell said. He said he had to persuade sponsors to pay fees directly to the university so that students could complete their degrees.

During the 2001 trip, Maarohanye's students told and retold their stories to the U.S. media. Later there were more sad stories after the release of a documentary, "Ithuteng: Never Stop Learning."

Charlie and Willie Ebersol and friend Kip Kroeger were inspired to make the documentary, which won a Crystal Heart Award at the 2006 Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis.

HBO has no plans to pull the documentary, despite the admissions by former Ithuteng students -- including Victor Mohale, who features prominently in the documentary -- that they had lied about their pasts.

"We are obviously aware of the allegations that the South African media have made against Mama Jackey. We don't believe that they affect the veracity of our film," HBO spokeswoman Jackie Manzi said. She said HBO had not been in contact with any of the students since the allegations were made.

HBO plans to run a card at the end acknowledging the allegations. Kroeger and Charlie Ebersol did not respond to messages left by The Times.

Siphambo said she still fears repercussions for speaking out. She felt bad about the lies at the time, "and I still feel bad."

Makheta said that when he was at Ithuteng, he and other students worshiped Maarohanye.

"Now I feel she really manipulated us," he said. "She treated us like we were her machine that she was making money out of. I feel used."

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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