Meet Zanele Mhlongo: SA Navy’s first ever female Non-Commissioned MEOCC holder

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Being the first female Non-Commissioned Officer to attain a Marine Engineering Officer Charge Certificate (MEOCC) in the South African Navy is not an easy task, says Chief Petty Officer (CPO), 34-year-old Zanele Mhlongo, the only South African woman to obtain such a qualification, in a male-dominated field.

Within the South African Navy, the duties of a Marine Engineering Officer include operating and maintaining propulsion plants and support systems, overseeing the ship’s stability alongside and at sea and fighting internal battles during emergency stations. They are also in charge of the Marine Engineering Department and ensuring that all personnel on-board adhere to all safety regulations in accordance with the International Maritime Organisation.

Mhlongo says it was not an easy road getting to where she is now.

“I endured many sleepless nights and I was at one stage told that I would not make it because it was not my time, but by God’s grace, I have triumphed,” said the lady from KwaZulu-Natal, who became the first woman to achieve that feat on 31 October 2023.

“This has been a difficult journey that demands commitment and effort because there are no planned classes; finding a devoted mentor is critical,” she said.

Despite the myriad of physical and emotional challenges she has endured both during training and at the workplace along some opinionated males, she believes that more women should join the field and help bring gender transformation from within.

In her opinion, more women following her path would not only provide them with the opportunity to learn about an exciting world of engineering, but also allow them to move quickly through the ranks, especially if one is dedicated and disciplined because “to get freedom, you must have discipline”.

There are many challenges she has met as she dispatches her duties in the demanding field. Gender disparities and stereotypes are among them.

“Working around males as a woman is really difficult because you always have to prove yourself, but I have handled it positively by working harder than most of them and ensuring that I learnt as much as I could,” added Mhlongo.

“That meant I was away from my child for extended periods, however, all my efforts were rewarded when I became the first non-commissioned female to acquire a Marine Engineering Officer Charge Certificate. This qualification was not obtained on my own; I have people who believe in me and took a chance on me, people who were willing to assist me in the early hours of the morning, on their time off, people who took time out of their busy schedules, and all the support from my family, friends, and, most importantly, my angels of light and God of light.”

Mhlongo also challenged women out there in the workforce to be focused and determined if they are to achieve their goals.

“To everyone who has chosen this path, I would want to emphasise that you must discover your own brand of greatness and never underestimate yourself. You must also filter out all the noise and run your own race. The sky is not the limit; you must fight internal fights that tell you ‘you are not good enough’. It is critical that you find something that ignites your spirit, that you locate your wagon and latch on to it. I’m here, I have lived, and I am ready for my next chapter, which is to be the MEO [Marine Engineer Officer] of a warship,” she added.

Born and raised in Dannhauser, Emfundweni in KwaZulu-Natal, Mhlongo attended Fairbreeze Primary School and Siyamukela High School where she later matriculated in 2006.

“Being a fourth born in my family, I was raised by both my parents in a family of eight children. I grew up in a loving home, but my family struggled in financing our education, particularly tertiary education. It was difficult. I appreciate the role our parents played despite those challenges.”

After completing her Matric, Mhlongo, worked as a Cashier and Salesperson at Boardmans and Edgar’s in 2007. “While working as a cashier and salesperson I was dissatisfied in my both jobs. Luckily, my sister advised me to join the Navy, being aware of my potential as a person. I took her advised and in 2008 I enrolled in the Navy where I chose the mustering as an Engine Room Attendant.”

After completing her Military Training for Rating Part 1’s and the Engine Room Attendant training, CPO Mhlongo was drafted on board SAS Spioenkop, where she was welcomed by Warrant Officer Class 1 Rodney Marks. She finished her Auxiliary Watchkeeping in 2010 and proceeded to SAS Wingfield in 2012 where she began her apprenticeship, completing it in 2013.

“I worked at Refit Standby Team (RST) in 2014, and it was difficult for me since I was not used to working in a Shorebase, therefore I wanted to return to SAS Spioenkop in 2017. It was not easy to obtain my Engine room Watchkeeping Certificate (EWK) ticket, but Warrant Officer Class 2 Mpho Phule took it upon himself to coach me. My EWK certification was successfully completed in 2019.”

She was later sent to Naval Base Durban Engineering Services, where she met Lieutenant Commander Zikhona Mhlambi who was instrumental in her enrolling for MEOCC, later successfully achieving her qualification on 31 October 2023.