Africa: advancing gender equality in ocean economy, navy


3 September 2015

South African Navy Lieutenant Commander Zimasa Mabela became South Africa’s first female navy vessel commander during Women’s Month when she took control on 26 August of the SAS Umhloti. She also became the first African woman to captain an active navy vessel.


Born and raised in Eastern Cape, Mabela joined the navy in 1999 as a telecommunications operator. She completed her officer training in 2004, becoming a Combat Officer at the navy’s warfare training centre in Gordon’s Bay. She later joined the SAS Isandlwana as an assistant operations officer.

Speaking to the Cape Times newspaper after her installation as captain of the Umhloti, she said had always had a fascination with the ocean and the navy; being a woman was not going to stop her fulfilling her dream of becoming part of that.

“I remember how excited I was when I first got accepted to be a part of the navy. I am proud to be the first black African woman to command a naval vessel. But, more than the title, I want to be an example to my crew. I want to be judged on my ability to command, and not my gender,” said the now Lieutenant Commander Mabela.


She is taking over the bridge of the Umhloti from seasoned navy veteran Commander Brian Shor. The handover, Mabela says, will be smooth: “Everyone has their own unique way of leading and to be in command you need the right attitude and personality. That is what will take you far.”

SAS Umhloti, based in Simon’s Town, is a mine-hunter vessel and recruit training facility. It is also used for rescue operations.

Lieutenant Obed Medupe, the navy’s spokesperson, says the navy fully supports Mabela’s appointment. It is determined to use this ground-breaking milestone as an opportunity to inspire more women to become actively involved, particularly at leadership level, in the navy, as well as in the overall military and private maritime sectors.

Africa and its ocean economy


The appointment indicated a new gender equality trend for maritime services, particularly in Africa, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) said in responding to news of Lieutenant Commander Mabela’s new command.

In the institute’s statement, Women in maritime, Timothy Walker said 2015 was Africa’s year for change. Walker is the researcher in the ISS’s conflict management and peacebuilding division. He said Africa was making great strides in advancing gender equality in private and military maritime sectors, developing real opportunities for women.

“The African Union (AU) is leading the way on the continent. Two events hosted this year (in Angola and Ethiopia), including the African Maritime Women: Towards Africa’s Blue Economy event (and) the AU summit in January focusing on Women Empowerment in Africa (were) a step towards achieving the goals of the AU’s Agenda 2063, (which includes advancing Africa’s) ocean economy. as a major contributor to continental transformation and growth.”

At these events, AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma repeatedly called for greater participation of women in maritime industries to increase interest in African countries as formidable maritime and naval players. The reputational and economic benefits from uplifting women and opening up maritime resources, training and stewardship to them leads to more opportunities for women in not only the navy, but also in ship ownership, fishing and manufacturing industries, as well as shipbuilding infrastructure.

Experience, authority and security


But, Walker warned in the ISS release, the role and contribution of women in maritime development must be correctly recognised and framed. “If women are to be fully included in the maritime industry, discussions cannot be limited to participation in one or two areas alone, such as environmental work, or entrepreneurship such as ship ownership. Creating a community of experienced women in maritime occupations needs to take place at several levels and in various sectors of the industry.”

Key to this is allowing experienced and fully trained women into positions of authority in the safety and security sector (navies, coastguards, maritime authorities) and the private sector ocean economies.

A positive step in this new direction, the ISS report highlighted, was the rise in the number of female marine pilots – steering ships into ports and harbours. For instance, 15 of the 70 marine pilots in South Africa are female, and the figure is growing. While the numbers have yet to reach this level in the rest of Africa, ground-breakers do exist.

“Elizabeth Marami is Kenya’s first female marine pilot and while the AU lauded this accomplishment. she remains, for now, Kenya’s only woman in this profession. The numbers alone only tell part of the story. Women who put to sea must gain multi-level and multi-sector experience, such as executive or engineering positions, rather than being limited to entry or low paid occupations,” said Walker.

One concern that still needed to be addressed, he explained, was that of the safety and support of women in the marine sector, an industry traditionally notorious for its misogyny and contentious sexual politics. The ISS report highlighted a South African initiative that went a long way to addressing the issue: “Efforts to ensure safety and support for female seafarers have included the South African Maritime Safety Authority’s Sisters of the Sea – an important initiative to enable the sharing of experience and support.”

Sisters of the Sea is a mentoring programme that guides female entrants into the marine and naval sectors, making sure they are brought into a safe and encouraging environment, and that the older, more male-dominated peer group are acclimatised to be more inclusive and respect diversity. Projects like this, said Walker, “require invigoration and expansion. Infrastructure changes must ensure women’s physical security on board ships and in the industry”.

Walker concluded the ISS report with a call for continuous and realistic transformation, and not just lip-service. “Sustained attention and action at the level of the AU, regional economic communities and national governments, in partnership with African and global maritime education institutions, is needed. The goal must be to transform the industry so that isolated stories of success coalesce into an inclusive and gender-balanced maritime domain.”

SAinfo reporter