SUNDAY TIMES - Hardened ex-con brings first 'code academy' to SA prisons
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Sunday Times STLive By TANYA FARBER, 2015-03-29 00:00:00.0

Hardened ex-con brings first 'code academy' to SA prisons

National coordinator for Brothers for All, Sihle Tshabalalaonce who once led a life of crime taught himself to code in three different languages.
Image: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

Sihle Tshabalala is going back to prison.

But this time, he will not be serving a sentence - he will be teaching prisoners how to take back their lives by learning software programming.

His project, which is due to start in the Western Cape next month, will be the first such coding academy behind bars in Africa, and the second in the world after San Quentin State Prison in California.

Tshabalala worked on his computer literacy while he was serving time for robbery.

"I was a high-ranking member of the 26s gang, but when I looked into it with deeper thought, I realised people respected me out of fear, not because I was doing something good."

During his 11-year incarceration, Tshabalala taught himself how to use Microsoft Office. Once released, he taught himself three coding languages online in six weeks before co-founding Brothers for All, a nonprofit entity in Langa that teaches coding to ex-offenders and unemployed young people.

Brothers for All aims to teach coding in 42 correctional facilities across the Western Cape, but is beginning with a pilot project in Helderstroom Male Centre and Worcester Male and Female prisons. Fifteen inmates per prison will be taught.

"We want to run it for all of this year. Over 40% of offenders are there for economic crimes. So, if you are looking for people who take risks and who have the potential to be social entrepreneurs, this is the place to find them."

Those who show promise will then be enlisted to pass the skills on to others.

Siyamthanda Mtshakazana, 27, an ex-offender at Brothers for All in Langa, said: "I was in jail for eight years and was released in December. I didn't want to live that life any more. I want to make my family proud of me."

Unemployed Nolitha Rula, 30, said: "Coding can take me far. I see it as a job guaranteed. You don't need matric exemption, and it isn't like learning coding at university where you will need mathematics and physics before you get there."

Tshabalala raises funds from various commercial sponsors for the training. "There is no entry requirement, and no price tag. Otherwise, only the already privileged would get to benefit," he said.

"More than half of South African inmates become re-offenders and this is a way out if you don't have any other formal training."

Six learners from the Langa project have already been accepted into a more formal coding academy, two are starting at web design companies, and three IT companies have offered internships.

Simphiwe Xako, head of communications at the Western Cape correctional services department, said the project was due to start next month.

"We are really looking forward to the initiative as it contributes to the rehabilitation of offenders and will empower and prepare them for sustainable social reintegration," he said.