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Paul Makupula, 31, is a senior lifeguard with the Kouga Local Municipality and joined Station 37 (Jeffreys Bay) two years ago. He lives in JBay with his wife, who works as an admin officer at the municipality. Paul tells us more about his lifeguarding work.

Turning chance into fortune

I must admit, I didn’t get into lifesaving because I wanted to save lives… To me, at the time, it was just a job. I was 22, unemployed, and the Kouga Local Municipality in Jeffreys Bay just happened to be offering free training, so I took it. But over the last nine years I’ve grown to truly love it. I didn’t know how to swim before my training, I was so afraid of the water. But now I love swimming and riding waves – back then, I had no idea it could be so much fun.

Sharing skills and empowering people

I also love that I’m able to help my community by training the youth and giving them skills that will never be taken away from them, and that can help them through life. I’ve trained many youngsters who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, some of whom didn’t finish school, but 99 percent of them, through this training, went on to find work as lifeguards. They can now earn up to R400 a day right after qualifying, and perhaps then go on to getting longer contracts. Passing the Lifeguard Award exam is the equivalent of getting your matric exemption under the SAQA (South African Qualification Authority).

Seeing how this programme transforms their lives makes me so proud. I have seen the lifeguard training programme help a reformed ex-convict find work and do something positive with his life. Such real life stories inspire other youth in the community not to give up hope of having a better life. There will always be a demand for lifeguards in this country, because South Africans love water, be it a pool, damn, or the ocean.

Humble heroism

I am proud to say there have not been any fatalities on my watch. Yes, I’ve executed plenty of rescues, but being a lifeguard is not for heroes. If you want to run into the water and rescue people all the time, like on Baywatch, that makes you an irresponsible lifeguard, because the most important part of what we do is preventing life-threatening situations before they happen. We have to constantly be on the lookout for dangerous situations, clearly allocate safe areas for people to swim in, and keep an eye on changing tides and rip tides. So if you do a lot of rescues, it probably means you’re not vigilant, because our job is meant to be proactive, not reactive.

Paying it forward

I became involved in volunteering for the NSRI when it amalgamated with the Jeffreys Bay Lifesaving Club in 2018, which was my club then, and we formed an NSRI Lifesguard Unit at Station 37. I volunteer most Saturdays and Sundays, about eight hours each day. During that time, I give back to the community by patrolling the assigned beach, I train lifeguards or I receive training from the NSRI as a crew member. Recently, I’ve been learning how to operate a power craft, and am proud to say that through that training I received a category E SAMSA Skippers Certificate, so now I am both a qualified rescue swimmer and a rescue skipper for the NSRI.

We learnt a lot about the importance of putting our own safety first and PPE (personal protective equipment) in the Covid-19 era – you can’t help anyone if you do not practise and implement safety yourself. I am really enjoying learning about the ‘deeper’ side of the sea, learning how to manoeuvre and work with the crew.Working my ‘day job’ as a lifeguard and then volunteering for the NSRI is demanding – my wife misses me! When we get time together we love to watch movies or go swimming.

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