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South Africa’s first black woman naval commander calls the shots


zimasa mabela

Zimasa Mabela grew up under apartheid in a South African village just two hours drive from the ocean, but she was 18 by the time she first saw the sea.

Now, aged 38, she is the first black African woman to command a South African naval vessel.

Lieutenant Commander Mabela’s first visit to the beach coincided with the end of white rule in 1994 — and she caught the historic wave of change that followed.

“I wasn’t terrified of the water,” she told AFP, gazing out from the bridge of her sleek minehunter, the SAS Umhloti.

“In my village there was a swimming pool at the church where us kids could swim.”

But Mabela’s desire for a life at sea came later, when she was at university studying for a Bachelor of Science degree in education.

She attended a presentation by the navy and was captivated by the slogan: “Join the navy and see the world.”

“I thought, where else would I get the opportunity to see the world?”

She signed up in 1999 at the age of 22 as a radio operator, and the navy has so far lived up to its promise — she has travelled to places as diverse as India, Uruguay, St Helena island and Canada.

Now, the ship she took command of in August is berthed in Cape Town’s historic Simon’s Town harbour, first established by the Dutch and taken over by Britain’s Royal Navy more than two centuries ago.

The harbour, curled under the mountains of Cape Town’s Southern Peninsular, is now South Africa’s main naval base.

Men make up the bulk of the ship’s crew of 54, but Mabela, in an officer’s uniform of crisp white shirt and black slacks, says her gender has not been a problem.

– More ambitions ahead –
“They have accepted me very well. If I give an order, it is an order,” she says with a warm smile — and a glint of steel in her eyes.

“I’d like to encourage other women to be brave enough and not think that this is a man’s world. You can achieve anything you want to achieve.”

Mabela is a mother of two daughters, aged six and four, but she says juggling work and motherhood is not a problem.

“I manage to balance my family life and job because I have a strong support system from my mother and my husband — who is also in the navy, so he understands.

“When I’m at work or at sea, I’m comfortable knowing they are looking after the kids well.”

At the same time, when she gets home, the naval commander takes on many of the tasks of a wife and mother.

“Over the weekend I have time to catch up on cleaning the house, doing the laundry and all those things.

“And during the week when I get home from work, I still cook supper for everyone so it is quite hectic.”

On board ship, with South Africa at peace and no mines to hunt, the focus is on training, search and rescue operations and “whatever requirements we can carry out”.

But the girl who grew up living “a normal village life”, looked after by her grandparents while her mother worked away from home as a nurse, is not resting on her laurels.

On her ambitions for the future, she says: “I have quite a lot, because there is so much to do in this organisation.

“I’d like to be involved in training, and if I get an opportunity to command a bigger ship that would be a plus for me.”

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