Former offender receives Gold Award in presence of Nelson Mandela

Award holder Errol De Souza

Errol De Souza, Gold Award holder from South Africa explains how the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award helped turn his life around. Here he recalls the day he received his Gold Award in front of Nelson Mandela.

"Eighteen years ago, in 1994, I received my Gold Award in this same venue from no one else as the then President, Mr Nelson Mandela. I will never forget that day; neither the journey it took to get to that point. I grew up in Helenvale, in Port Elizabeth. It is a suburb notorious for gangsters, poverty and many other social ills. My family had high expectations from me as I was the only one who completed matric.

"Unfortunately, their hopes were shattered when I was arrested and sentenced for armed robbery in 1991. After hearing a presentation by Vanessa Crous, who then worked for the Award, I along with 19 others inmates at St Albans correctional centre, decided to do the Programme. The chance of meeting the President and the opportunity to go out on the hike, was a major attraction to do the Programme.

Opening doors

"The day of the Ceremony, fourteen of our original group of 20, received their Gold certificates. We were the first inmates ever to participate and complete the Gold Standard of the Award. At the Award Ceremony, no one knew who we were or where we were from; until it was announced. Every one at a Gold Award Ceremony thinks they are VIPs. We did too. We were very nervous as a group, but people responded so positively to us and congratulated us on achieving Gold.

A few years after my release, I joined The President’s Award as Fieldworker. I then became the National Coordinator of the Award in prisons. In this time, I motivated and guided the implementation of the Award in prisons across South Africa. The Award was implemented in 65 prisons by the time I left the organisation. It was almost an obsession for me to show some of the negative officials in DCS, that inmates who get involved in such programmes as the Award Programme, can turn their lives around for the better. Some people believe that once you are a criminal, you will always remain a criminal. I always told the inmates to grab opportunities like this and prove the negative people wrong that they will not always remain inmates. The success rate of inmates who complete the Award is very high. Of our group of 14, I think only 1 person re-offended again. In essence, if the Award is not implemented in prisons, true rehabilitation is withheld from young offenders.

"The Award is different to any other rehabilitation programme there is in correctional centres. It opens doors for the young inmates … literally. They are exposed to activities and people they would not be under normal circumstances. The hike is not just a hike. It’s about trust in you as a person. Trust is a big issue to youth – not just for those in prisons.Looking back, the greatest impact the Programme had on my life was the direction it gave me. I would never have ended up in the career I am in now. I amcurrently a Project Manager at Khulisa and oversee the implementation of various initiatives in the community. Now, I have the opportunity to invest in the community and youths. I am convinced that there are many more inmates who completed this Programme and they are also giving back by being involved in the community. We still need to work on aftercare services to inmates who are released. They need a support network when returning to the communities they came from. There is a lack of positive role models who come out of prison. I therefore intend being more involved with young people in future. I know that if you give young people opportunities and trust them, they will prove any of your negative perceptions wrong."

Reducing reoffending rates

The Award's non-formal education model provides an alternative way for young people in the prison system - many of whom are not in formal education - to gain a sense of self-esteem and achievement. The Service Section of the Award helps young people in custody to reconnect with the communities from which they have become alienated. By gaining practical skills, the Award also gives young people the opportunity to make better choices when they leave custody.

Did you know?

  • In 2010, Award programmes in 24 countries were working with young people within the prison system.