Mabela: the first African woman to command a Navy Ship


At the end of 2015 South African media outlets broke the most exceptional news regarding the South African Zimasa Mabela who became the first African woman to take command of a navy vessel, and got her name listed among the BBC 100 most influential women of the year 2015.

Mabela, 38-year-old mother of two, took charge of the SAS UMHLOTI (South African Navy Ship), replacing officer in charge, Commander Brian Short. Born and raised in the eastern part of Cape Town, the village girl’s life revolved around school, and fetching firewood and water from the river. She saw the sea for the first time when she was 18 and since then the maritime universe was not strange to her. Mabela told News24 that may be having read several books and watched movies has helped her not to be shocked by the sea.

“I was not scared of the water because where I grew up we has swimming pools,” she added. In fact Zimasa and her friends used to sneak off the pools at a Catholic Mission in McKay’s Neck Village, making sure they were not caught by the missionaries.

Lieutenant Zimasa Mabela joined the navy in 1999 as a telecommunication radio officer. By 2005, she had completed her military training for officers’ courses in Gordon’s Bay and then combat officer qualifying course at the Navy’s Maritime Warfare Training Center. That same year, she joined the ship’s company of the Valour Class frigate SAS Isandlwana and was appointed Operations Officer where she obtained Officer of the Day qualification. In 2006, Mabela obtained her Bridge Watchkeeping Certificate and was subsequently appointed as Assistant Weapons Officer. After continuing to work her way up, she then broke ground the navy vessel command, becoming the first African woman to attain such military achievement.

“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,” Mabela said.

Like it has always been the case in these kinds of circumstances, “low blows’, back stabbing or jealousy are just part of the game when a person makes headway, and Mabela realized it. “I got a lot of criticism from the general public, not everyone of course, when I took over. I don’t let that affect my work because I know that those people don’t know me and what I am capable of,” she said.

The promotion for the first time of a black woman to such an important military role is just part of the comprehensive national goal of reassigning native Black South Africans to various responsibility positions and transforming the sociopolitical make up of a nation that has been for many years torn apart by the discriminatory Apartheid system led by the White minority over the native Black majority.      

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