Life once seemed bleak and hopeless, his grandmother’s social grant the only thing keeping him and his mother from starving. Paballo Lobone is a qualified firefighter and paramedic but couldn’t find a job.
“It was a really hard time for me,” says the 26-year-old from Klerksdorp in Matlosana, North West. Never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined then that he’d become a figure of inspiration in a country halfway across the world – a real-life hero who puts the needs of others before his own.
Paballo proudly shows us the English textbook for Japanese middle-school pupils in which his courageous deeds are detailed under the headline, “Pabalelo Lobone, the local hero with gloves.”
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Only one other South African is featured in the book: none other than Nelson Mandela.
“It’s a great honour to be in a book with Madiba. It makes me feel I have a good heart and people see that,” Paballo says.
And a good heart he certainly has. Throughout the dark times and the difficult days, there was always a golden thread running through his life.
He was always in the right place at the right time to help people in need: he delivered a baby on the busy streets of Johannesburg, rescued women who’d been trapped under a car wreck and helped put out fires in his community – all while he was unemployed and didn’t know where his next meal would be coming from.
But Paballo’s determination to make a difference is also driven by tragedy: last year his baby son died at birth and he’s made it his life’s mission to save lives and help people.
“The world is a cruel place,” Paballo says. “We need to take care of each other.”
The streets of Alabama in Klerksdorp are crowded with people and animals. On one road, a long line of patients waits to be seen at the community clinic where Paballo now works.
After four years of searching for a job, he found one as an admin clerk in 2020. It’s still his dream to be a full-time paramedic, but at least he’s working in the field he loves so much – one where the needs of people and his ability to help them meet, he says.
“I want to get a few ambulances and start my own emergency service one day, but I’m grateful to have a job and to be able to provide for my mom and gran,” he says.
Even as a child, Paballo knew he wanted to help people. He was living with his mom, Mendo Inno, grandfather Oneboy and gran Gloria when his granddad suddenly died in his sleep.
“Nobody could help him,” Paballo recalls.
“My mom was hysterical. That’s when I realised I didn’t want to experience something like that again – I wanted to be able to help people.”
After his granddad died, Paballo was suddenly the man of the house and felt it was his responsibility to care for his mom and gran. After several years his mom remarried and his stepdad was a good man who saw potential in his young stepson.”
He worked on the mines and made it possible for me to complete my paramedic and firefighter courses after school. I’m grateful to him."
Paballo had high hopes when he started going to job interviews, but he soon became disillusioned when he failed to get one job after another.
“I was so down. My gran would always say it’s just not yet my time. I had to be patient.”
As the months dragged on, situations arose where Paballo could put his emergency skills – and instincts – to use. In 2016, a house in his neighbourhood caught fire and he sprang into action immediately.
“The nearest tap was far away. My neighbours came knocking on my door asking for help. From my training, I recalled the bucket brigade – a bunch of people stand in a line and pass along buckets of water. I had them form a bucket brigade and we managed to put out the fire and saved many of the belongings of the woman who lived there.”
A few months later, there was a car crash in town. Once again, Paballo was in the right place at the right time.
“Four women were trapped under the wreck. The ambulance hadn’t arrived yet but I managed to stabilise them until the emergency services arrived."
"I was the first face the people in the car saw after the crash. Afterwards, one of the women thanked me and said if it hadn’t been for me, she probably wouldn’t be alive today.” In 2017, while he was working part-time at a local casino, he helped save a life once again.
“I was walking to the petrol station near the casino at 11 at night when a man came running toward me. He was bleeding – he’d been stabbed. I happened to have gloves and bandages in my backpack, so I treated him right there in front of the casino and got some paper serviettes from the KFC.”
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Then in 2018, when Paballo was pounding the pavements of Hillbrow, Johannesburg, looking for work, he spotted a group of people huddled around a woman.
“When I went closer, I saw that the woman was in labour. People wouldn’t let me through until I told them I was a qualified paramedic.”
Paballo borrowed some gloves from a hair salon across the street and rushed back to the scene.
“I delivered the baby right there in the street and someone brought blankets. The dad was in tears. They named the baby after me.”
News of Paballo’s deeds started to travel and the SA media began to report on this humble hero. Now he’s famous far outside his community, country and even continent – so just how did the Japanese hear of him? someone who was compiling a textbook on inspirational people around the world contacted a local journalist for ideas, Paballo explains.
“The journalist had done a story about me so he suggested me for the book. When they were compiling the book, I did Skype interviews with them,” Paballo recalls.
And when the book was published, the publisher sent him a copy from Tokyo. What does his family think about his newfound international recognition?
“My gran is super proud of me. She heard me praying to God every night, asking for help. She’s just afraid that I’ll decide to move to Japan,” he jokes.
“I’d like to visit Japan someday – maybe I can teach the kids first aid. It’s important that everyone knows basic first aid.”
Outside the clinic, Paballo’s white Polo Vivo is parked, a sticker with baby footprints and the name Oaribile on the windscreen. It’s the name of his and his partner’s baby son, the little boy who died at birth.
“No one could help him,” Paballo says. “If only someone like me had been there to save my child.”