Treading carefully

2008-12-30 00:00

Sipho Mkhize (not his real name) lives in Edendale. He’s 36 years old with a teenage daughter in Grade 11. He’s a welder by trade. He’s done time behind bars and is now on parole serving the remaining few years of his prison sentence back in the community. It was while he was in prison that he turned his life around, learnt a trade and set his sights on running his own business.

Mkhize was convicted of armed robbery in 1999. “I was caught with an accomplice at the scene in Durban,” recalls Mkhize, who had a previous conviction for possession of dagga.

“I was still in school when they caught me with dagga,” he says. He left school in 1992 after getting his matric. “I tried to get work but there were no jobs.”

Mkhize then took up with a group of friends who were similarly unemployed. “We would sit around smoking and drinking. We needed money to survive so we started committing crime.”

His criminal career proved short-lived and Mkhize was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. He first went to Westville Prison and then to Ncome Prison near Vryheid. When that prison underwent renovations, Mkhize was moved for an 18-month period to the C-Max prison outside Kokstad. The final period of his sentence was served in Pietermaritzburg.

“Jail is not a hotel,” he says, reflecting on his prison experience. “I hated that place. While I was there, I decided I must never come back to a place like this. Jail is not a place for people.”

Asked about his experience in C-Max, Mkhize is lost for words. “It was more than heavy,” he says eventually. “No jail is good, all are bad, but C-Max ... phew. You spend 23 hours in the the same room with one hour outside for exercise. Everything is tough, no newspapers, no cigarettes, so you just sit and watch the walls.”

Determined that he would never return to prison, Mkhize decided he must turn his life around. “I first realised that I must appreciate the things that belonged to other people. I mustn’t take them without their permission. Short cuts get you nowhere and you can’t get money without working for it. There is no such thing as easy come, easy go.”

Mkhize became the model prisoner. “I just wanted to do my sentence so I could go back to my place. I did nothing that would prevent that.”

Mkhize began studying — “I wanted to improve my matric subjects” — and he also set about learning a skill. “There were various things to choose from — welding, sewing, painting or carpentry. I would have done carpentry, but my weak chest meant I wouldn’t survive doing carpentry.” So he did a welding course instead. “As soon as I got out I wanted to be able to start working.”

Mkhize was lucky. “When I came out I had a customer — she wanted a veranda.”

A life skills course had helped prepare Mkhize for re-entry into society and, thanks to his good behaviour, he was released on parole in 2007. The National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro) provided Mkhize with welding equipment and, along with the Department of Correctional Services, assisted him in creating a business plan.

Mkhize used the money earned from that first job to purchase some steel. “I wanted to demonstrate what I could do, so I made a palisade and a gate at my home. That way I had something I could show to potential customers.”

Mkhize makes a range of products including burglar guards, car ports and gates. “Business is good,” he says, “but not good enough. It’s hard, but I take it step by step. And though I’m struggling at times it’s better than being in prison.

“Some days I wake up and think, what must I do today? Watching TV for the whole day, doing nothing, that’s not a good thing. So I find things to keep me busy.”

He’s recently branched out and bought a brushcutter. “I use it for clearing grass and now is the season for that. I go all over the township to do jobs. I also have a tile cutter and can do tiling.”

Mkhize has also successfully completed Nicro’s Start and Improve Your Business course which saw him register his own business and create a job for a fellow ex-offender. “He was someone I knew in jail,” Mkhize says. “We work together. He did jail and he knows what it’s like. You don’t want to go back, you know with every step you take: ‘there’s a jail’.

“And you have to tread carefully.”

History of Nicro

NICRO was founded in 1910 as the South African Prisoners’ Aid Association and was the first organisation of its kind established for the aid and aftercare of prisoners and their families. It was renamed the National Institute for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of Offenders (Nicro) in 1970 and at the 1997 biennial general meeting the word “rehabilitation” was replaced with “reintegration”.

A number of changes took place in the eighties and nineties. In the late eighties, Nicro started to serve victims of crime. Nicro also introduced restorative justice and was the first organisation to adopt an alternative approach to sentencing.

Nicro now functions in all nine provinces, has many service points and over 40 community victim support centres.

Nicro annually touches the lives of over 80 000 people — young offenders and youth at risk of committing crime, incarcerated people, released prisoners and their families, victims of crime and violence, especially abused women, and survivors of domestic violence.

Nicro’s vision is to build and strengthen a democratic society based on human rights principles through crime prevention and development. The organisation regards crime as a threat to democracy and individual rights. Through people-centred development and services to victims, offenders and communities Nicro’s mission is to strengthen a human rights culture and create a safer South Africa.

Nicro’s goals are to promote restorative justice (restoring the balance affected by crime rather than practising retributive justice) and people-centred development.

To achieve its goals Nicro runs three main programmes.

• The Offender Reintegration Programme helps facilitate the return of former offenders to their families and communities and their reintegration into society.

• The Diversion and Youth Development Programme channels young offenders away from the formal criminal justice system by utilising alternative sentencing options, while simultaneously addressing the needs of high-risk youth.

• Alternative non-custodial sentencing offers courts a viable and effective sentencing option through appropriate programme interventions to reduce re-


• Websites: and


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