Pretoria - Despite being skilled and educated in prison, former offenders are finding it nearly impossible to find work once they are released.
During a female ex-offender entrepreneur development seminar held at the Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional Centre on Thursday, various ex-offenders told of how they had been equipped with skills, and some even received tertiary education while serving their prison terms, but struggled to find employment.
Olga Mehlulo said she was arrested at OR Tambo airport for drug trafficking and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment, but released after serving seven years.
"I am not working because of my criminal record. We were given skills in prison to equip us, but when we are out no one is there for us," Mehlulo said.
She said during her incarceration, her daughter was killed by her police officer boyfriend who later turned the gun on himself, leaving two children orphaned. She is now taking care of them.
"I trafficked drugs not thinking of the people whose lives I would ruin. We call our boys nyaope boys, but I had a hand in making them that way," she said.
Louisa Nkuna was also sent to prison for drug trafficking - an eight-year prison term she said was a learning curve.
"I believe what I have done in my past does not determine my future," she said.
Her marketing and cosmetology qualifications - obtained while in prison - have not served her well thus far in the three months she has been out of prison.
"I did not appreciate the little that I had, that's why I ended up doing what I did."
Mehlulo, Nkuna and other offenders all struggled to adjust to life outside prison, as they carried the stigma of being an ex-offender.
Gerry Nevari, of the Department of Correctional Services, said their aim was not to imprison people and neglect them until it was time to release them. "We don't have a dustbin for human beings. Humans are not beyond redemption. We put you in a pot where we can rebuild you," Nevari said.
He said they wanted to take ex-offenders and make them ambassadors for the department to do motivational talks to discourage people from a life of crime.
"We need to get rid of this myth that it's nice being in prison. Prison is not a five-star hotel; it is hell in there," he said.
There were female business owners who also attended the event and were able to either offer entrepreneurial advice or offer them work in their businesses.
Okuhle Hlikihla spoke of the life struggles she endured to be a business owner.
She encouraged the ex-offenders to persevere through their struggles as she survived a physically abusive marriage.
She told them she was also homeless and unemployed but able to start her own business and get back on her feet.