Mandla Bula, an ex-offender and now a messenger of hope, was born in the township of Khayelitsha outside Cape Town. His parents raised him to walk the straight and narrow road. Mandla was an outstanding athlete and even represented Western Province in middle distance running.

Gangsterism, drugs, crime and prison

However, as a teenager, he was drawn into gang culture where he became involved with drugs and crime and consequently ended up in prison. Mandla went to prison for the first time at the age of 16 for possession of an unlicensed firearm and served a six month sentence in Pollsmoor. Two years later, the 18 year old went back to prison. This time he was sentenced for 15 years for hijacking and robbery. He served just over three years of that sentence in Pollsmoor where he joined a prison gang as it offered a sense of safety.

“My ideal at that stage was to become the most notorious gangster once I was released.”

A life-altering decision

His life took a 360 degree turn when he got transferred to Drakenstein Prison. It was like a veil was lifted and he started to realise the hurt he was causing his family. The realisation brought feelings of guilt and regret for the things he had done.

Several Christian groups work with inmates at the Drakenstein Prison and regular church services are held. In July 2011 Mandla decided to join one of these services. The sermon was on the all familiar scripture, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

That morning, Mandla made a decision that would change the course of his life forever. There was no sudden transformation and neither was the change in his behaviour a walk in the park but he persevered. He told his mother the truth of what he had done because previously he denied his wrongdoings. It was especially difficult walking away from the gang lifestyle. He spent hours reading and praying allowing the positive words to change his thinking.

It was especially the teachings presented by a local volunteer and businessman that really touched Mandla. To this day he believes that this man was an angel sent from God. These new understandings helped to Mandla to cement his new identity as a Christian. Nonetheless, on hearing he was about to be released he became fearful, not knowing how he will cope in the outside world.

Instead of being happy to be released, I was fearful. I knew that I was a new person but I was scared that people wouldn’t believe me. I was determined to go back to the people who I hurt and ask for sincere forgiveness. I wanted to make things right.”

Peace rose in Mandla’s heart after he heard the testimony of the businessman. He shared his story of being hijacked in Johannesburg and his journey of forgiving his offenders. “His testimony was an answer to my prayers. I saw a person who was once in the same situation but on the other side of the weapon, with me being the person holding the weapon. I could hear God say; ‘Go out, I will be with you.'”

The Franschhoek businessman who mentors Mandla and gave him the opportunity to start a new life.

Promoted from restaurant cook to guest house night manager

Mandla was declared a free man and left prison on 24 November 2013. He went home to his family in Khayelitsha where he was faced with memories of his old rebellious self. “I asked the Lord to move me from that place. I am a living seed; there were no grounds to grow. If I stayed there I would have died.”

To his amazement during that same week, he received a call from no other than the same businessman he met in prison, asking him if he would like to be a cook in his restaurant.

“Without any hesitation I packed my bags and went to the restaurant in Franschhoek. I worked hard, I was determined to make it work.”

He showed commitment to his work and boldly lived his new life. He stayed at the halfway house in Franschhoek and being a cook gave him the hook he needed to catch the attention of a lady working in the kitchen at a nearby hotel. The two got married last year.

After diligently working at the restaurant for two years he was promoted to night manager at a Franschhoek guest house owned by the same businessman. The position included accommodation on the premises.

Letting his light shine

Mandla, the businessman and Johnny (an ex-offender and his church leader in prison) visits prisons every Tuesday, where they share their stories of hope with the prisoners. They started with visiting schools in the Cape Town area and are currently focusing on schools in the Cape Winelands area.

“My heart is to be the solution where I have caused harm.”

The three men started the ABC (Agricultural Bible College) project and have collaborated with Farming God’s way to help ex-offenders reintegrate into society. Mandla is also involved with one of Valcare’s partner organisations, WOW ministries, led by Johan Groenewald.

Mandla with his friend John, an ex-offender that was his church leader in prison.

Johan is different than many others, he is not running a programme but he is running a ministry out of faith. He understands what is needed for ex-offenders to be reintegrated into society and he is passionate about what he does.”

“I realised that I would not have made it if I stayed in Khayelitsha. God took me out of that environment but not everyone is that fortunate.

“This is why the work that Walking on Water Ministry is doing is so important. It helps those who are back in their communities to have assurance of their salvation and the power of Christ in them so that they can stand strong.

Mandla’s dream is to reach as many young people from the townships by sharing his story of hope and the gospel of truth, a truth that can set you free.

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