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WATCH | How lives are changing in prison... one matric exam at a time

Usethubeni Youth School at Westville Prison in Durban.

Songs of hope and faith echoed through the narrow passages at Durban’s Westville Prison as 29 inmates prepared to write a matric exam.

Songs of hope and faith echoed through the narrow passages at Durban’s Westville Prison as 29 inmates prepared to write a matric exam.

“Hurry up, because we, your people, are waiting,” they sang, as they eagerly waited to enter the exam room at Usethubeni Youth School at the prison on Thursday.

The school’s name translates as “you stand a chance”. It was officially unveiled in 2013, but has been in operation since 2003.

Among the eager prisoners was 21-year-old Sibusiso Kubheka, who said: “I am overjoyed by this opportunity that I have been given to study matric because with it I have been able to prove to the world that I am still human, even after the mistakes I have made outside.”

Kubheka is serving his second year of an eight-year sentence for rape. He said once he had obtained his matric he would continue studying and wanted to get a law degree.

He and his fellow inmates have spent seven hours every day preparing to write their matric exams. They are part of a group of 200 inmates who are furthering their studies at the prison as part of the Department of Correctional Services' rehabilitation programme.

Sphamandla Shabangu, 24, said he had aspirations to pursue graphic design and fashion.

“I have some ideas about my name brand. I know it's going to be hard, but I have faith that, as time goes by, everything will be okay. When I do graphic design it makes me feel free,” said Shabangu.

He is expected to be released in a few months.

“The overall pass rate for DSC KZN has improved over the years. We moved from 70.5%... to 82% in 2017. This is thanks to all the dedicated staff and teachers we have,” said the department’s spokesperson, Thulani Mdluli.

One such dedicated teacher is school principal Neliswa Mkhize, who has been a teacher for 10 years. It dawned on her that there were students in prison who needed help.

“I realised that there was youth in the prison system who society was not paying attention to. I felt that a lot of them were there as a result of our shortcomings as teachers. This is where I got the drive to come here and become a teacher,” said Mkhize.

She has been at the helm of the prison school for the past five years. Mkhize  said she tried not to dwell on how her students ended up behind bars.

“I never ask them how they ended up here because, if I did, I would start taking it personally. As a teacher, you are a parent to all of them... I never want to know what they have done, as a parent my job is to try to help them,” explained Mkhize.

Her matriculants at Westville are the largest behind-bars cohort in the country, something she is extremely proud of.

Mkhize also pleaded with school principals to not deregister their pupils when they ended up in prison.

"We have had students in the past who were arrested while in matric and when they get here they can't write the exam because their school has deregistered them with the [education] department. It’s just not fair," she said.

The inmates wrote IsiZulu paper one on Thursday and will finish their exams on November 26.

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