Thirty-year-old Zinhle Ndawonde is the poster child for hard work, tenacity and never giving up on a dream. When she’s not battling blazes as an Airports Company South Africa firefighter, she’s on the field wearing her beloved green and gold, embracing her role as vice-captain of the Springbok Women’s Rugby team.
When we meet Zinhle, she’s just returned from her first training camp of the year with the Springbok Women’s Rugby squad. She’s super hyped. Next year’s world cup cannot come soon enough. A dog tag hangs around her neck. It reads ‘Oh Wow, I like that!’ – a line she’s recognised for most by those who know her best. Just above her wrist, she’s inked with the word ‘Blessed’ because she believes that no matter how much life throws at us, good or bad we are made better because of these things.
“I am a happy, bubbly, friendly and peaceful person. I don’t get angry very easily. Even at 4am I’m happy thanks to Jacobs coffee – black with no sugar. Life is too short to be grumpy or ungrateful, and it goes without saying that everything is done better with a smile on your face.”
A proud resident of Chesterville, Zinhle’s hard work and performance on and off the field, have made her a source of inspiration for many. At Airports Company South Africa, she is a fire and rescue officer at King Shaka International Airport. On the Springbok team, she has her eye on the ball as an inside centre, working to provide space for the players and creating attacking opportunities. Her firefighter role and her love for the sports field hold equal passion and she has never considered sacrificing one for the other.
“We can learn a lot of lessons about our own growth from the life cycle of a butterfly. The process of metamorphosis relates in many ways with our own moments of transformation. I have had choices in life, and I have learnt to embrace the changes in my life. When it comes to my career and my passion, I have learnt to make sure they leverage each other because I do not have the luxury of picking one and being financially sound enough to support my family for whom I am the breadwinner. Women’s sports don’t get much exposure in this country, so we often need to sustain ourselves in other ways. This is why I chose to pursue a career as a firefighter, not because as a kid I had a wild dream about being one. It is a field that requires me to be fit and strong, so it complements my rugby because I need to pass a series of fitness tests every month. Over time, I have found great passion for my job.”
In spite of her infectious smile and positive attitude, the journey has not always been an easy one for Zinhle. As a young girl, she was initially drawn to soccer, but because her high school only offered rugby, she had no option but to give it a go. She fell in love with the game.
“I started playing rugby in 2008, so it took a long time to get to where I am now. I met some resistance from my father because of the rough nature of the sport, but that is exactly what attracted me to it. I was determined to prove to him and others that I could make a success out it. Having a daughter who was determined to play a sport or thrive in a field of work that was rough and tough could not have been easy for my father to accept, but I was relentless. Only years later, after I began to excel, did my father relent and give me his support.”
Zinhle studied Sports Management at DUT and worked at Virgin Active as a fitness instructor before applying for a job as a firefighter for the eThekwinin Municipality. In order to be admitted into the fold, she was required to pass a series of challenging tests. For six months she participated in training programs that provided instruction in fire prevention, fire suppression techniques, hazardous materials control, CPR, and chain-of-command protocols. On the successful completion of her training, she was issued with an international qualification.
At Airports Company South Africa, no day is ever the same ‘at the office’ for Zinhle who works a 12-hour shift with four days on (two day shift/ two night shift) and four days off. As a Grade 3 (Senior) firefighter, Zinhle leads from the front in training and by example in helping around the station. Even though it is not a rank, it is a position that deserves respect.
“It’s strenuous stuff this. It’s not like in the movies where it’s all about heroics and looking handsome all covered in soot from a fire you’ve just extinguished. Even during simulated training we are put through our paces! We work in twos (for safety reasons) and we work as a team, and there is never a day without heat, hard work and gruelling challenges, the hardest of which are actually not at the station or on the field. I’m not scared of many things (okay snakes are an exception and being trapped with no way out), but my biggest fear in life is saying goodbye to my mother and leaving home, not knowing if I’m going to return. That’s the nature of this job I suppose, but it’s also the nature of life, for all of us.”
One of Zinhle’s most recognisable qualities is her humility. She does not compare herself to her male colleagues, nor does she boast about her ability to perform on the same level as they do in what previously used to be a male-dominant line of work.
“I’ve never faced adversity from my colleagues. There are no ladies here… only firefighters. I might only be 1.6m tall, but I can deadlift 60kg! Honestly, we are all equal. We work together and when that bell goes, we all move. Okay, yes, I still get a fright all these years later, but it’s become a kind of ritual now that when the bell goes off, I make a loud noise and then I run for my gear and the tender. Above all, we are also family. We train together, we fight fires together and we laugh and cry together.”
Zinhle attributes her rugby and career success to a drastic lifestyle change as part of a conscious decision to do everything possible to make it at the highest level in both her passions.
“In 2016, when I was first called up to the Springbok Women’s Sevens team, I realised how much I could achieve if I worked hard at something. It was then that I made a promise to myself to do whatever it takes to make it to the top. My discipline improved in terms of my training and my diet, and I worked hard on improving my fitness levels and lifestyle in general. This paid off because the last few years have been an incredible journey. I’ve stomped the rugby fields of Australia for the Commonwealth Games, Hong Kong for the Sevens, London for the Springbok Women’s 15 and San Fransisco for the Rugby World Cup Sevens, and it has been a blast!”
On Tuesdays and Thursdays she’s got club rugby, and with the Springbok season in full swing, she’s got squad practice on Mondays and Wednesdays, but Zinhle admits that none of it would be possible without the support of Airports Company South Africa who understands the demands of the sport.
“The support I receive from my employers, my family and my community inspires my success at work and on the field. Both jobs allow me to protect them, serve them and make them proud. Having a strong support system at home plays an important role in my work-life balance. Despite the comfort of the cocoon for the caterpillar, it has to emerge from this state. Otherwise we would never have the beautiful butterfly. Similarly, you have to get out of your comfort zone and try new things if you want to move forward. Pushing boundaries is what I like to call it.”
“If there was any advice I could dish out to youngsters who are at the point of career-making decisions, it would be to try and find a line of work that best complements your passion. Work for an employer that understands and supports your passion. It just makes things a whole lot easier and opens the door for your success. I love my country and I love being able to make a difference. Whatever I am blessed to do in life going forward, it matters that I am able to give back, ideally through the sports industry of course, so bring on the Rugby World Cup Sevens! This remains one of my highlights, and I would love to be part of the 2021 World Cup in New Zealand in the 15-a-side code. To be successful one needs to set clear goals and be consistent and resilient at achieving those goals. This is my future to carve!”
Photographer: Desiree Dales, www.desireedalesphotography.com, [email protected], 074 779 4555
Makeup: Brenna for Accentuate Hair and Makeup, www.professionalmakeupartist.co.za, [email protected], 079 541 2551,
Location: King Shaka International Airport Fire & Rescue Station