Firefighters are a lifeline in our most desperate moments and when you call for help chances are that it will be a young Khayelitsha mother behind the wheel, steering the shiny red engine to your rescue.
Zusiphe Mehlomakhulu, 23, is proof that firefighting is not just a man’s job.
Ms Mehlomakhulu is a qualified driver at the False Bay base for the Working on Fire programme.
She hopes her good work will pave the way for other young women in the industry.
Originally from Mount Frere in the Eastern Cape, she lives with her mother, son and siblings in Harare, Khayelitsha, and is motivated every day to support her family.
Ms Mehlomakhulu joined Working on Fire in October 2014 and gained many new skills as a firefighter.
Talking to Vukani, she said she wanted to work hard to uplift herself during her time as a health and Safety representative in 2015.
But she conceded that it was not easy.
“First, I was unemployed when I joined firefighting. When a neighbour explained to me it sounded easy and I signed up. But when I got into it, it was very tough. During the fire season, we had to sleep in the mountains, using stones as pillows.
“It was difficult; climbing the mountain alone takes energy. But I would encourage people to join firefighting because we are helping the country. And people can grow in the company just like I did. I am now a driver,” she said proudly.
She said in 2015 she started raising money for her driver’s licence. When her mother had an accident and lost her hand and couldn’t work anymore, she said everyone was dependent on her and her older brother to put food on the table and provide for their family.
“I stayed focused and completed my learner’s licence in April 2016 and my Code 10 licence in August 2016. In June 2017, I completed the driver training course in Nelspruit and passed. Now, in June this year, I have successfully completed my probation. As we speak I am a qualified driver for my team at the False Bay base. This shows how I have travelled in a short space of time,” she said.
Ms Mehlomakhulu loves her family, especially her son and wants to see him succeed in life. “My son means the world to me. I am looking after him with help from my mother. I could say I’m a single parent but I have my family behind me and my work and colleagues.
“My family and I never stopped supporting one another and that is what has kept me strong over the years. I am very committed in my work and I will do my best every day to be a safe and responsible WOF driver,” she said.
She praised her team at WOF, including her manager Shantel Frans, for always motivating her to do her best and make use of the opportunities Working on Fire has to offer.
Ms Mehlomakhulu called on other young people to join firefighting. She said opportunities for young people are available.
“I know for many young people this kind of work is not fancy. But this is a good job that one can do for the country,” she said.
Lauren Howard, Working on Fire provincial communications officer, said they run an integrated fire management programme, which has ensured employment for many youngsters from marginalised communities.
Funded by the Department of Environmental Affairs, the programme falls under the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP).
She said nationally the programme employs over 5 000 participants, 94 percent of whom are youth, 31 percent are women (the highest level in any comparable fire service in the world) and three percent disabled.
“These participants are trained in fire awareness, education, prevention and suppression, as well as other skills such as first aid, carpentry, cooking, health and safety and communications,” she said.