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Educating South Africa's kids, one by one

José Bright’s “Saturday school” helps poor-but-promising schoolkids – and their parents – to succeed.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / November 9, 2009

To address South Africa’s huge education gap, José Bright helps students achieve, one by one.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff


Soweto, South Africa

When José Bright arrived in South Africa in 1994, he felt daunted by the task ahead. After all, as director for regional affairs for the mayor of Washington, D.C., he had been asked by South Africa to help transform its schools, designed to benefit the white minority of 4 million, into a system to educate the 40 million black majority as well. [Editor’s note: The original version referred to Jose Bright as a consultant]
Nobody would have blamed him if he'd simply declared victory, turned, and run.
But after several short-term projects here, Mr. Bright stayed. He's now a lecturer the School of Economic and Business Science at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. He has dipped into his own pocket and donated his free time to ensure that a handful of poor but promising South African middle-school students make it through high school. [Editor’s note: The original version referred to Jose Bright as a consultant and misstated his position at Witwatersrand University]
Bright's nickname is Teboho, the Sotho word for "gift." Awarded to him by local elders, it means, "thank you God for giving us this person” – a gift.
Thus the Teboho Trust was born.

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Today, with a team of volunteers working for his Trust, Bright is helping nearly 230 children – and some of their parents as well – to succeed.

"Why do I do it? That's how my mother raised me. She taught me to be compassionate," says Bright, standing outside the kitchen where volunteers were preparing a free lunch for the 230 young students participating in Teboho Trust classes on a recent Saturday. "When you are dealing with a child, it's a big commitment. That child, he has a face, a name; he has thoughts, he has a heart."

Bright's parents raised him not to pity those who are disadvantaged, but to be a problem-solver, he says. What can he do to help people improve their situation – for themselves?

In South Africa, where 35 percent of the population is under age 15, where 10 million citizens are either functionally or totally illiterate, where only about 30 percent of schoolchildren pass their exams and graduate, and where between 28 to 40 percent of the population is unemployed, improving education is about more than gaining a ticket to individual success. It's a matter of national survival.

The size of the task is daunting. But the persistence, optimism, and hard work of Bright's team show that even a few idealistic individuals can make a difference.

It all started in February 2001 with 10 children.

Bright, who had visited South Africa on multiple occasions since the fall of apartheid, was making good money as a consultant. But he was also taken aback by how much needed to be done. In the four poorest South African provinces, students were having to take classes in tents, in tin shacks, and sometimes under the shade of trees.