In Post-Apartheid Soweto, Children of AIDS-Stricken Parents Find Solace at School

Jose Bright was inspired by hearing Mandela speak at the White House in 1994.

SOWETO, South Africa, July 3, 2013— -- For the hundreds of children living in the ghettos of the South African township of Soweto, prayers for a better life are being answered by an American man who moved there to open a school.

Jose Bright, 53, a lawyer from Compton, Calif., came to Soweto decades ago and now calls it home. He runs a school the locals call Teboho, an African name which, roughly translated, means "a gift from God." It holds classes on Saturdays, complementing and improving students' experience at regular schools.

Most of his students, ranging in age from eight to 18, are orphans who lost one or both parents to HIV-AIDS, which is still a badge of shame in South Africa for those stricken by the virus and their children.

Many of the children who attend Teboho were failing in public school, deemed unteachable and unwanted. But in Bright's school, students are encouraged to learn, and the results speak for themselves.

"I wish people could see what I see every day -- children who will walk so far with an empty stomach because they want to get an education," Bright said. "It breaks my heart sometimes that children will come on a Saturday to get extra class time. They value education."

One student named Elizabeth is just 17 years old. Her mother and sister both died from AIDS. She now lives in a small house with her grandmother and five other relatives.

Their life is lean, with seven people sharing one table that has only two chairs. They use a hot plate to cook meals and heat the house. It is winter now in South Africa and temperatures can drop into the 30s at night.

But there is a bright spirit in Elizabeth, which dark circumstances cannot dim, all thanks, she said, to the American who helps her.

"I always smile when I see him. The only reason I like going to school is because Mr. Bright is there," she said. "Mr. Bright is a kind person. He inspires us to see the world better."

Teboho occupies a two-story, slightly run-down brick building. Bright said the school operates on grants and donations and has partnered with several U.S. schools. Subjects include math, English and marketing. The lunch menu on a recent visit was beans, corn and potatoes. Students don't complain.

Bright and many of the locals in Soweto refer to the children of South Africa, especially the ones who grew up in the village, as the Freedom Generation.

In Soweto, the inhumanity of apartheid was at its worst, sparking the Soweto Uprising in 1976. It was here that Nelson Mandela raised his family and first defied the South African government, before being sent to prison.

Bright told us he got the idea that his talents were needed in South Africa after hearing Mandela speak at the White House in 1994.

"He talked about the new South Africa, and he was looking to bring investment to the country," Bright said. "What touched me was that he said, 'Especially you African-Americans, you have gone through the Civil Rights process. We want to embrace a new democracy, and your unique view will give value to our country, and we need you.'"

He planned on staying one year. It has been 18.

"An old nun told me once, 'Bloom where you are planted,'" Bright said. "This is where God wants me."

And it is here that Bright believes he can make a difference. According to him, some 2,000 students have come through his program. Some of the students described Bright as a motivator, an adviser, even a father.

"In 12 years we have had 100 percent of students [earn] pass[ing] grades. In 12 years, not one of our girls has become pregnant, none involved in the criminal justice system," Bright said. "I see the miracles every day."

Many of Bright's students go on to college. Out of his classrooms have come teachers, lawyers and a doctor.

"Less than a third of the people have a high school diploma, but all I can tell you is, one child at a time, one Saturday at a time," he said, "All I can do is ask people to live the legacy that Mandela left."