To those who know him, Towson Catholic senior Thabo Letsebe is more than a South African exchange student and basketball player.
"Thabo displays presidential qualities, the character of someone who should someday be an ambassador," said Horace Holmes, a Washington television news anchor who helped initiate Letsebe's move to Maryland.
"Thabo carries himself with an eloquence, a different moral perception and character, than you're used to seeing in most kids," said Towson Catholic assistant coach Joe Connelly, a history and government teacher at Dunbar High.
Letsebe, 18, is from Alexandra, the native township of South African President Nelson Mandela. He speaks English and five African languages. His 3.0 grade-point average and raw basketball skills for the fourth-ranked Owls have colleges such as Lafayette and St. Mary's expressing interest. And he might be as good with the pen and paint brush as he is on the hardwood.
"I'm impressed by his mannerisms and sincerity, let alone with his exceptional brilliance in drawing," said Sheila Gill, a Towson Catholic art teacher for 11 years. "I see him as having a future as a graphic artist. And he paints magnificently. He's got this attitude like he really wants to succeed at whatever he tries to do. In Thabo, I see a young man with unlimited potential."
Thabo Letsebe (pronounced tie-bow let-se-bee), whose real name is David, said "Thabo" means "Happy" in his native language, Northern Sotho. It is a nickname given him by his mother for his carefree demeanor as a child.
Letsebe's personality and background so enthralled a former teammate that he made Letsebe the subject of a writing project. The student, Dunbar senior LaFonte Johnson, said, "I wrote a five-page report on Thabo and wound up with the highest grade in the class."
As part of the project, Letsebe came to Johnson's class and fielded questions from students about himself and his heritage.
"Thabo did an excellent job of portraying to my class the hardships -- both pre-apartheid and post-apartheid. Yet on a daily basis, he doesn't seem to dwell on it," said Connelly, Johnson's teacher.
"If anything, his experiences seem to have made him very sensitive to other people's hardships and life difficulties."
Letsebe said he wants to attend a four-year college in the United States, obtain American citizenship, and, eventually, bring his family to America "by taking it step-by-step."
"Thabo's the chosen one, the person in the family who is expected to make his mark, and ultimately, to bring the rest of his relatives here," said Towson Catholic coach Mike Daniel, with whom Letsebe is staying.
Solid on the court
Letsebe is also a pretty good basketball player, averaging 13.2 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks over the past 15 games for the Catholic League regular-season champion Owls, who will be going to the Alhambra postseason tournament at Frostburg State on March 18-20.
The 6-foot-6, 190-pound Letsebe had his breakthrough game in a victory over Red Bank (N.J.) Regional at the Slam Dunk to the Beach Tournament in Lewes, Del., in late December.
Facing University of Maryland-bound Tahj Holden, a 6-9 center, Letsebe grabbed eight rebounds, blocked four shots -- two by Holden -- and scored 12 points.
"All I'd heard was that he was this good player who was going to Maryland, but I just treat everyone the same," Letsebe said. "We played good `D' to the point when he started taking the ball outside and staying there. I was surprised to see that."
Holden finished with 12 points and seven rebounds, but Letsebe was also impressive.
"We doubled down on [Holden], and you could see Thabo's wing span and quickness bothered him," Daniel said. "Every time the kid put up a shot, it seemed like Thabo had a hand on it."
Mandela's home in the 1940s and Letsebe's hometown is "a place 10 times worse than any American ghetto I've ever seen," said Mike Finley, an U.S.-born businessman in South African who befriended Letsebe. "People literally live on top of each other."
Alexandra, about a 30-minute drive from suburban Johannesburg, is close to the most affluent white areas of the nation once known for its legalized racism.
"The townships were built for black people. And being close to [Johannesburg] in the '40s and the '50s, everyone came to get jobs," Letsebe said. "A lot of blacks were domestic workers. They weren't allowed to leave the townships unless they had permits. That's how townships began."
So packed is the township with an estimated half-million people -- many illegal immigrants -- that shacks often are built in the back yards of others. Nomads come and go. The government provides public water spigots, portable outdoor bathrooms and wood stoves.
The Juskei River runs through the township, occasionally overflowing and wiping out makeshift homes.