Seeking new life

Ex-con tells of his difficulties finding a job

CHANGING HIS COURSE: Thobani Klaas was in and out of prison for robbery for most of his adult life but has subsequently turned his life around. Since his release, Klaas struggles to escape his past and wants nothing but a second chance Picture: LOUISE CARTER

THOBANI Eric Klaas was a gangster for most of his youth and spent 15 years in and out of prison since the age of 17.

Going back to prison is a nightmare Klaas does not want to live, but since his release in 2010 he has struggled to escape the invisible bars around him. He told TotT he has turned his life around, and has committed himself to an honest and meaningful path, but struggles to be accepted back into society.

Klaas is an example of an individual who has slipped thought the cracks of life. He was born as the eldest of five children in the Port Alfred area. At the age of ten, his mother couldn’t cope with feeding five children and opted to leave Klaas at an orphanage. He ran away after completing Grade 7 and was absorbed into a gang.

“It was a group of people like me who made me feel like I belonged,” said Klaas. It was then that the runaway started getting into trouble.

At the age of 18, Klaas was arrested the first time and so the next 15 years was spent in and out of prison, from Grahamstown to Pollsmoor to several jails around the country.

Klaas’s biggest offence was armed robbery, with several instances of common robbery and theft on his record.  During his last sentence, he discovered God and said he had turned his life over so that he can live a godly life.

“But it’s hard, the only skill I learned while inside was painting. I want to have a better life, I don’t ever want to go back there [prison],” Klaas said.

He can’t find work, having been rejected time and time again. He has sought out many avenues, but “when people hear of my past, they close the door on me. I went to the church to see if they can help me, but they chased me away when I told them my story,” Klaas said.

For a few years after his release, social workers used Klaas as an example of a reformed inmate to give his testimony at schools to show the youth what a life of crime and gangsterism can lead to.

“I was a gangster, but I am not anymore. I want a future. I want to choose a better life. I want to help support my family, my kids and I want to show people in the community I have changed,” said Klaas.

He said it was difficult to reintegrate in his community. “When the anger comes I feel the prison inside and it feels like the only place that is home. But my life is not my prison. God has shown me the way and I never want to go back,” he said.

He said there were more gangs inside prison than on the outside.” Some people will always go back to prison because the only way they can survive is crime,” he said.

“I’m very stressed, because I’m not able to provide for my family. This has caused depression. I don’t want to go back to where I was and I don’t want to turn to crime. I’m not going to make the same mistake again.

“A person can change. We all make mistakes and I’ve already paid the price for that. Some of us went into crime to make a living and got caught and some of us got the message and are rehabilitated. I have changed and need a second chance,” he insists.

SAPS spokeswoman, Captain Mali Govender, said it is common practice for employers to ask for police clearance and it’s the prerogative of the company or business to not employ someone based on this. She also said that correctional services have certain programmes in place but that the biggest problem is finding employment for ex-offenders.

“It’s really sad that people can’t escape their past. But you cannot ever give up. You have to keep trying and have to find a way to help yourself,” Govender said.

The national institute for crime prevention and the reintegration of offenders (Nicro) believes employment is the key to prevent ex-convicts from committing crime again.

“If ex-offenders are assisted by the community to reintegrate and support them through this difficult journey the community will be playing a role in reducing the likelihood of re-offending. Ex-offenders are faced with various challenges to reintegrate, and one of the biggest challenges is supporting themselves,” said Nicro spokesman Jacques Sibomana.

TotT asked Eastern Cape social development a series of questions regarding what steps Klaas can take to help himself by gaining employment. We received no response.


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