New lease on life for ex-offenders
16 February 2011
The City of Johannesburg's Gateway Project helps ex-convicts re-integrate into society through skills and internship programmes. The project has been so successful, it is now being extended.
Jabulani Dlamini, a convicted criminal, came out of prison a few years ago fearing the worst.
But today, just a few years after completing his nine-year sentence, Dlamini is holding down a job – his first legitimate one – and he harbours dreams of furthering his studies.
"I see a bright future for myself ahead," Dlamini says. "My heart is set on equipping myself with education … I want to catch up with what I have lost."
Working at Joburg Market as an assistant skills development facilitator, 30-year-old Dlamini is one of 55 former juvenile prisoners who were given the opportunity to undergo job training in City departments in 2009 through the Gateway Project.
Over nine months, the training covered basic fundamentals of personal
finance, organisational behaviour and work readiness.
Dlamini credits the Gateway Project with giving him the awareness to change his life and attitude and show him things about life that he never knew.
"The Gateway Project gave me the support where I could take any problem and get an honest assessment," he says. He can't believe how different his life is.
"If it was not for the Gateway Project, I am not sure what would have happened to me … I am where I am because of them."
Life of crime
After dropping out of high school in 1997, Dlamini started using drugs and committing crime to earn money. His life took a turn for the worse when he was arrested at the age of 19 for his first attempt at hijacking a car in 2000.
His two accomplices, who were also involved in the botched attempt, managed to escape and he was left alone to face the music. "I was desperate to belong to a certain group and wanted to prove to them that I could do
anything," he says now.
He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and served nine before he was paroled. Once inside prison, he found himself face to face with hardcore criminals and was forced to join a gang to protect his life.
"It was a quite a scary situation to be shut up with people I hardly knew."
While in prison, Dlamini struggled to stay out of trouble by concentrating on his studies. "Prison is a school for criminals … you may get arrested for assault and come out later with the knowledge on how to hijack a car," Dlamini says.
He often found himself at loggerheads with prison officials, who locked him in his cell during school hours. "Some prison wardens did not support our efforts to go back to school as they were scared that we might become better than them."
After coming out of prison, Dlamini despaired of getting a job because of his criminal record. Completely unprepared for life outside prison and failing
to accept his parents' unexpected divorce, Dlamini ended up returning to drugs to escape the harsh realities of his life.
He learned about the Gateway Project after visiting his parole officer, who gave him forms to fill in. Desperate to change his life, Dlamini kicked his drug habit and concentrated on the programme.
After nine months of intensive training, he was placed in the human resources department at Joburg Market. He had to learn everything from scratch, which included how to use a computer, preparing presentations and filling in requisition forms.
"When I first joined Joburg Market, I could not construct a sentence in English; however, the staff were patient and gave me books to read and kept on encouraging me," he says.
After months of hard work, Dlamini was made a permanent employee at Joburg Market and recently was nominated Employee of the Month.
He believes that ex-convicts can make it in life if they are given the necessary support
structures. While he believes there are stigmas attached to ex-convicts, he insists it is possible to overcome that stigma through hard work and determination.
The Gateway Project provides young people who have been in conflict with the law with personal and technical skills required for seeking and holding a job, according to the City's deputy director of the youth development directorate, Jolidee Matongo.
"The project offers these ex-offenders new skills and experiences that will enable them to be re-integrated into communities and to function in a diverse set of workplaces," Matongo points out.
A project of this nature has not been implemented by the City before; it is a pilot case for similar programmes in the future. "The project has been a great success in changing the behaviour of the participants … I have seen so many people transformed."
Matongo notes that most of the participants harboured anger before the training, but
later changed. "Their behaviour changed drastically for the better."
According to research done by Khulisa, an organisation that aims to tackle crime holistically through diverting youngsters from the criminal justice system, about R52 000 is spent each year on looking after a prisoner and R28 000 year is spent on rehabilitating offenders.
"The economic benefit for the country as whole was what drove us to implement the programme," Matongo says.
Its success has prompted the department to train 35 offenders this year and in 2012.
Source: City of Johannesburg