Firefighters wanted: S. Africa's record drought sparks recruitment drive

As South Africa battles its worst drought in three decades, efforts to protect its national parks are providing jobs for marginalized youth.

Ryan Lenora Brown
Working on Fire crew leader Vusi Nkabinde leads his team of forest firefighters in a drill at the Suikerbosrand Nature reserve near Johannesburg, December 8, 2015.

All through the southern hemisphere spring, Vusi Nkabinde waited for rain. But as first September, and then October slid by beneath hard blue skies, the sprawling grasslands here began to turn crisp and wither. Temperatures soared to record highs and the winds picked up, fast and searing.  

Mr. Nkabinde had been a forest firefighter long enough to worry; this was the season when he and his crew typically caught a break after months of bone-dry prairie winter.

This year was different. By the time the storms came in mid-November, the region had gone nearly nine months without a drop of rain.

“It was very late, and it was very little,” he says. “That’s a recipe for disaster.”

Across South Africa, the worst drought in more than three decades is ravaging harvests and livestock, driving up the price of staple foods and threatening the livelihoods of thousands of subsistence farmers. Around 2.7 million households face water shortages, and some cities are already rationing supplies. 

And on the hidden frontline of that crisis are firefighters like Nkabinde. These men and women are tasked with keeping the current alchemy of parched earth, high wind, and sizzling temperatures from turning into an environmental catastrophe in national parks and open spaces. That task is made all the more remarkable by who they are: not seasoned career firefighters but young people from some of the country’s most marginalized communities. Many never finished high school. Some have a rap sheet. Jobs are scarce at home. 

They are here in this park outside Johannesburg thanks to Working for Fire, a small public works program. It offers a stipend and skills training to anyone willing to help keep the country’s forests and prairies from going up in smoke.

'You just have to get going'

WoF is part of a larger network of public works programs forged here in the early 2000s in an attempt to answer one of post-apartheid South Africa’s most vexing social questions, namely how to help young people hobbled by generations of exclusion and oppression.

“We can’t talk about the history of this country forever,” says Parapara Makgahlela, the WoF provincial communications officer for Gauteng. “At some point you have to just get going.”

In a country with an unemployment rate of 25 percent, that's easier said than done. WoF has made at least a small dent: it currently employs about 5,000 firefighters at more than 200 bases around the country. Most are in their 20s – South Africa’s most chronically underemployed population segment – and nearly a third are women. (By comparison, the US Forest Service’s firefighting cadre is about 10 percent female). 

“I’m trying to set a new example for my daughters,” says Nomusa Nkabinde (no relation to Vusi), a firefighter who aspires to eventually become a long-haul truck driver. “They must see that we do everything the men do. In this work, we’re all the same.”  

A fresh start

On a recent afternoon, Ms. Nkabinde and the rest of the team at Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve marched back and forth in lock-step across a dusty patch of land outside their base, practicing the military-style parading that is a key element of their program.

“I like the discipline, it makes me feel in control of my anger,” says Maleeto Mabe, who has been a WoF firefighter for three years.

Prior to that, she says, there was discipline in her life, but most of it came from the prison guards keeping an eye on her every movement. When she was 17, she stabbed a man to death; a court convicted her of murder. Four years later, she’s a team leader here.

“I had no idea what I was going to do when I got out, so this program changed a lot of things for me,” she says.

Ideally, the firefighters trained at WoF would move on within a couple of years to other jobs since the goal is to give them skills to make them employable elsewhere. And the modest stipend they receive – $150 to $350 per month, depending on rank – is an incentive to look for better paid work.  

But after years of fitful economic growth, that choices eludes many. Ms. Nkimande, for instance, has been in the program for seven years. And Mr. Nkaminde is entering his fifth year, but says he hopes to move on soon. After watching how his family reacts to his current job, he says, he’s aiming to take another public service position – as a police officer.

“I overheard my 7-year-old son the other day with his friends and one of them said, ‘doesn’t your dad fight fires? I think he’s a hero.’ That’s the kind of role model I want to always be,” he says.

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