From jailbirds to firefighters

From jailbirds to firefighters

10 November 2014

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South Africa — From the frying pan that is prison, to being at the coalface of helping to put out veld fires, parolees in the Western Cape are being given a second chance to turn their lives around through a Working on Fire programme.

This is a Department of Environmental Affairs programme to help fight unwanted veld and forest fires.

South Africa is the only country in the world that has a full-time and professional veld and forest firefighting service at its disposal.

Bonheka Mbono, 23, from Philippi has been struggling to find work since her prison stint.

She was convicted of theft and sentenced to 18 months in prison of which she was incarcerated for two months.

“I am honoured to have been given such a huge opportunity; it will change my life and that of my family.

“We have been given a second chance, it is something great for us.

“I never thought that it would ever be me: a fire fighter.”

Mbono is one of 40 female parolees under house arrest who qualify for a job opportunity thanks to an agreement between the programme and the Department of Correctional Services.

The programme takes on male and female parolees.

In order to qualify, the parolees need to prove they are physically and mentally fit for the job.

“Life is hard, it is difficult to get a job with a criminal record,” said 42-year-old Jo-ann Bayley, who confessed she hardly ever exercised.

Gloomy weather did not deter the parolees from “trying out” for the programme during a training session at Rocklands sports grounds.

Running a 2.4km trail, Bulelwa Stulo, a 25-year-old mother of a seven-year-old boy, said: “I am so excited about this opportunity. It means that I don’t have to steal to eat”.

The programme’s stringent requirements include being quick on one’s feet to survive.

The beneficiaries are employed year round and, apart from firefighting work during the fire season, they also take part in fire prevention and social campaigns in communities affected by veld fires.

In the Western Cape there are 31 ground teams on the programme, of which 18 percent are women.

Simone Sundstrom, 21, from Mitchells Plain was convicted of housebreaking and theft in June. She lives with her mom and stepdad.

“I never thought of being a firefighter. The department asked us to try out and said it would be a permanent post.”

Sundstrom, who only completed Grade 10, said she was abusing drugs at the time of her arrest.

“This will change my life.”

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