Khaya’s woman in the line of fire

Firelady Thandekile Mvunyiswa talks about the challenges she encountered being one of the first black women in the Fire and Rescue Service.

Thandekile Mvunyiswa, platoon commander at Khayelitsha fire station, shared her ups and downs of being one of only a few black women in the male-dominated Fire and Rescue Service, for the past 24 years.

While being a firefighter seemed to be a job for men, the mom of two, who initially wanted to be a nurse, quickly developed a deep passion and love for her job in the early stages of her career.

“In 1994 I passed my matric and I went to study at Bellville College, where I obtained my secretarial qualification – which I never used.

“In 1996 there were posts from the Fire and Rescue department which I applied for, not having any idea what it was about. I applied for the position and I was successful,” she said.

She told Vukani that after being employed as a firefighter, she learnt that she had been the only woman in that intake.

However, she said: “Finding out that I was the only black woman in the space was never really intimidating because I grew up with boys. At home I was the only girl, so I was never intimidated of being the only lady.

“However, I knew that there would be challenges. I encountered obstacles such as sharing everything with men, being undermined by men and not being given the respect I deserved because I am a woman in their space.”

She then worked her way up through the ranks, getting recognition for her hard work over the years from her senior managers. She later applied for more senior posts within the department and was eventually presented with the challenge of being a Platoon Commander.

“As platoon commander I still get challenges – men not wanting to submit because I’m a woman.They don’t acknowledge my presence,” she said.

“There was a time where females in our department were discriminated against because they were pregnant. I was one of the victims who were not paid (when I took maternity leave).”

Despite all the challenges though, Ms Mvunyiswa told Vukani she loved her job.

“I have been doing this for 24 years and I never get used to it or feel that I know it all. Each experience is different from the other.

“Responding to a call where there are children involved always touches my heart, because I am a mother and I would feel that we failed to protect the child.

“What I enjoy the most about my job is working with different people and learning different cultures and backgrounds.”

Ms Mvunyiswa encouraged young girls who want to infiltrate any male-dominated industry to never give up.

“Women are capable of doing everything and anything they put their minds to. I want to say young girls should follow their dreams and break the stigma,” she said.