“It’s not about the recognition,
but about saving lives. At the end of the day,
that’s why we do what we do.” These
are the words of Pumlani Lumbe, winner of the
debis Emergency Hero of the Year Award for 2005
At the award ceremony of the debis Emergency
Hero of the Year Award for 2005 at the Emperor’s
Palace Convention Centre one could forgive many
a guest in the audience for whispering under their
breath: “How could he do that? Was he mad?”
The vivid stories of the heroes of this gala
dinner kept the audience riveted as the details
were replayed. In their everyday lives these are
ordinary men and women who come from policing
and law enforcement, fire-fighting, emergency
medical, hospital and ambulance services, rescue
services and disaster management services. But
one day they were called upon to selflessly act
in saving lives or property.
For debis Fleet Management (dFM) chief executive
Dan Moeletsi the award is all about focusing public
attention on the risks that men and women in the
emergency services face daily.
It is an award that is presented annually to
publicly acknowledge the brave acts and the motivation
of these men and women, he says. “But because
the are committed, caring, and above all human,
they do what has to be done at that moment with
one thing in mind: save lives and protect property.”
The winner of this prestigious bravery award
was Pumlani Lumbe. He received a floating trophy,
a cash prize and an international trip combined
with a training course in his area of expertise.
Beyond the call of duty
Nominees for the debis Emergency Hero of the
Year award are chosen by their peers for any acts
of heroism performed in the previous calendar
year. Tough nomination criteria and procedures
ensure that only the most telling of heroic actions
The individuals or teams entered must serve in
one of the emergency service disciplines. The
incident must also have been observed by a witness,
been selfless and beyond the call of duty, and
been intended to save a life or valuable property.
Nominations start in October and usually close
by 15 March of the following year. They are sent
in by the public and colleagues during an intensive
campaign in newspapers and on radio and television.
Once the nominations have closed, a validation
committee including top level members of all the
emergency services disciplines – fire services,
police services, paramedics, sea rescue, mountain
rescue and the like – reviews all nominations
and selects the finalists in conjunction with
an independent market research company. An independent
panel of adjudicators, with no vested interest,
then chooses the winner.
At the announcement of the finalists, Superintendent
Robert Askew of the National Crime Prevention
Unit, who has found himself in similar situations,
thanked the finalists for what they have done.
“I know you don’t like talking about
what you did, because it always brings home the
realisation that you could have died. It’s
a split-second decision to take action, a decision
on which people will judge you based on your actions.
You think of your family, you realise that you
might not survive, your life flashes before your
eyes,” he said.
“But what makes the difference is that
you decide to do it anyway.”
Pumlani Lumbe’s story
“Don’t cry, I’m here to help
you. God is going to help us,” the Mthatha
police captain told a mother clinging to her three-year-
old son and five-week-old baby daughter and a
log in the middle of the raging Xuka River in
a remote area of the Eastern Cape.
Pouring with rain, pitch dark with only the headlights
of his police van lighting the scene, all Captian
Pumlani Lumbe had to work with was a rickety wooden
ladder from a nearby village and rope. The rest
depended on his training as the only police diver
in Transkei and his courage.
The force of the floodwaters had destroyed both
ends of the old low-level bridge and a tree trunk
swept down by the torrents had become trapped
in the concrete pylons holding the centre of the
bridge. It was all that was keeping Nokholisile
Mxhobo and her son, Bongani, and daughter, Othembela,
from being wrenched away to a certain death.
Captain Lumbe anchored one end of the ladder
on the muddy bank, which was already in danger
of collapsing, and rested the other end on one
of the concrete pylons. He then tied a rope around
his waist and gave the other end to a fellow policeman.
He carefully crawled over the river, less than
a metre below him. He first tied the toddler onto
his back and crawled back again to safety. Then
he went back for the baby and secured her with
towels from the villagers onto his back. “I
couldn’t crawl on my stomach along the ladder,
because the baby kept coming up my back over my
head, so I had to crawl on my hands and knees,
which was very dangerous. I just prayed I wouldn’t
The mother would have to crawl across by herself.
She got about halfway when her dress caught on
a nail and she started to cry. “I said to
her: ‘Don’t cry, I’m here to
help you. God is going to help us.’ She
calmed down a bit and managed to free herself,
and get across.”
But Captain Lumbe was not done. The family’s
precious groceries were tied to the tree in the
middle of the river. Still facing deadly danger,
he managed to throw most of the food across, losing
only two litres of cooking oil.
The following day, the river bank on which the
ladder had rested had disappeared — but
a national hero had been found.