SA Navy chief mourns those lost in submarine tragedy, including pioneering female officer

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The Chief of the South African Navy, Vice Admiral Monde Lobese, is heartbroken and devastated by the deaths of three submariners who passed away on Wednesday after being washed overboard the SAS Manthatisi during an exercise.

Lobese is currently in Newport, Rhode Island, for the International Seapower Symposium but is trying to get an earlier flight to return from the United States. He said he was “struggling to comprehend the magnitude of this loss, as I spent time with the OC [Officer Commanding], XO [Executive Officer] and Coxswain just last Wednesday. They were so proud to inform me about their readiness to proceed to the Waterfront for the Mini Navy Festival and that they will conduct several evolutions en-route. We laughed and shook hands, and I wished them a safe journey, never thinking that this tragedy would occur.”

He added that the SA Navy Submarine Branch is a “highly professional and well trained organisation. That Mother Nature decided otherwise can’t be blamed on the SA Navy’s professionalism. Tragedies of this nature happen all over the world with various navies. The Australian and Indian chiefs of navy as well as the US Chief of Naval Operations who were comforting me yesterday shared their own similar experiences while they were at sea.”

The Mini Navy Festival that was supposed to take place this weekend in Cape Town has subsequently been cancelled, although the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) will still have a presence in the Mother City over the long weekend, with a right of entry to the city parade on 23 September for eleven units across the SANDF.

Lobese extended his condolences to the family, friends, colleagues and shipmates of the three submariners who died on Wednesday. “This is so very sad, not only for the families, but also for the Submarine Service, the South African Navy and South Africa in general. I am heartbroken and devastated by what happened,” he said.

“Also allow me to extend my gratitude to the crews of the SAS Manthatisi and the maritime Lynx helicopter, emergency workers, as well as the members of the National Sea Rescue Institute, for their heroic rescue efforts. Without them, this terrible incident would have been much worse,” Lobese added.

The SAS Manthatisi was en route to Cape Town while conducting a vertical replenishment (vertrep) exercise with a Super Lynx helicopter, when high waves swept seven crew members out to sea. Rough seas affected the rescue and recovery operation, in which the National Sea Rescue Institute assisted. While all crew members were recovered, three fatalities were recorded. Other crew members, including a senior officer in a critical condition, were sent to hospital for treatment.

“This is a sad loss for our nation and for our brave armed forces in particular, who routinely face danger in order for all of us to be safe and secure. My thoughts and prayers go out to the families, friends, commanders and colleagues of the crew members we have lost,” Commander-in-Chief of the SANDF, President Cyril Ramaphosa said.

“We wish the injured personnel a full recovery from the physical and psychological trauma they experienced during this tragedy. We also appreciate the efforts of all role players who, at great risk to themselves, undertook the rescue and recovery operation,” Ramaphosa added.

“We will remember the souls of the departed brave heroes and heroine who passed away serving their country with pride and diligence. Now is the time for the SA Navy family to unite and pray for the departed shipmates and their families. Let us all be strong and keep their families in our prayers and thoughts,” Lobese said.

SA Navy Chief Monde Lobese aboard a Navy Type 209 submarine.

The deceased submariners are SAS Manthatisi Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Gillian Elizabeth Hector (Malouw); Coxswain, Master Warrant Officer William Masela Mathipa; and Coxswain under training, Warrant Officer Mmokwapa Lucas Mojela.

The injured members are Officer Commanding, Commander Charles Nkolo Phokane; Weapons Officer, Lieutenant Melinyani Gobinca; Warrant Officer in Charge Submarine Escape Training Simulator, Warrant Officer First Class Brendan Daly (he was the safety swimmer from the helicopter who jumped into the water as a surface swimmer to assist); the Head of Section Electrical Department, Warrant Officer Second Class Ayanda Mahlobo; and the Head of Department Detection, Warrant Officer Second Class Charles Kriel.

Hector, formerly Malouw, was the first woman to hold an executive officer post in the SAN submarine service, becoming the first qualified non-white female SA Navy submarine officer in 2019. She joined the SA Navy in 2010 at the age of 20, and qualified as submariner in 2018. She is survived by her son and husband.

Mojela was born in October 1980 and enlisted in the South African Navy in 1999. He joined the submarine branch in 2006 and qualified as submariner in 2007. He is survived by his wife and two children.

Mathipa was born in February 1975 and joined the South African Navy in 1997. He joined the submarine branch in 1998. He is survived by his wife and two daughters.

Vice Admiral Monde Lobese with Master Warrant Officer William Masela Mathipa.