South African Navy sets up inquiry to probe submarine tragedy

The naval submarine SAS Manthatisi and its members were on board during the incident on Wednesday. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

The naval submarine SAS Manthatisi and its members were on board during the incident on Wednesday. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Sep 21, 2023


The South African Navy said on Thursday it will be convening a board of inquiry into the tragic events that led to the deaths of three of its members.

On Wednesday afternoon, the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) and a range of other emergency medical personnel rushed to Kommetjie in Cape Town after reports of naval mariners having difficulty in the water were reported.

By the evening, three people were confirmed to have died.

On Thursday, the SANDF confirmed the identities of the three members on board SAS Manthatisi who tragically died: Lieutenant Commander Gillian Elizabeth Hector (Executive Officer), Master Warrant Officer William Masela Mathipa (Coxswain), and Warrant Officer Class One Mmokwapa Lucas Mojela (Coxswain under training).

In a media briefing held at the naval base in Simon’s Town in front of the submarine involved, Flag Officer Fleet, Rear Admiral Musawenkosi Nkomonde, said an exercise was being conducted with the Airforce Lynx helicopter.

The exercise was to transfer personnel from the helicopter onto the submarine; however, during this course, the accident occurred.

“The members of the submarine who were on the upper deck waiting to receive the personnel from the helicopter were swept overboard by a wave,” he said.

Initially, three members were swept overboard, and the other crew members were trying to assist them when they were also swept overboard by a second wave.

“A surface swimmer from the helicopter who is normally a safety number for such evolutions was lowered into the water to assist with the rescue or recovery of the members who fell overboard. Members were recovered; they were brought back on board; however, the sea was rough and the rescue evolution was becoming difficult,” Nkomonde said.

With the recovery of the three back on board; the others were recovered by boat from the NSRI

Nkomonde said that when these exercises take place, safety is of the utmost importance and that all safety measures are in place.

“All the members who were involved in the evolution were wearing life jackets and safety harnesses, which are our safety measures when such incidents occur.

Unfortunately, three of our members didn’t make it, and the other four members were evacuated to various hospitals in the Cape,” he said.

Three members have since been discharged from hospital, while another member who remains stable will be discharged on Friday.

Nkomonde said the family members of the deceased have been informed, and the Navy is currently engaged in terms of preparations and arrangements for the funerals.

“The crew members are undergoing counselling, and those in hospital will be given time off. The proper and necessary support will be given”.

“For those who passed on, we have regulations and prescripts we follow like any other government department.

“In terms of the cause of the accident, an inquiry will be convened so we can establish what happened because it is not the first time we are doing such an evolution.

“I am told all safety precautions were adhered to, so that is why a board of inquiry will be convened to establish what happened and prevent future occurrences of what happened,” Nkomonde said.

Questions were raised on whether the weather conditions were suitable for such a training exercise.

Nkomonde told members of the media that it would be the captain of the submarine who would have had to make the call and check if weather conditions were conducive or ideal for such an exercise to be conducted.

“The captain of the submarine would have had to make the call and check if [weather] conditions were conducive or ideal for such an evolution to be conducted. We were all not there, so we are all waiting for the people who were there to give us first-hand information when we conduct an investigation,” Nkomonde said.

He confirmed there were no damages to the SAS Manthatisi and said when it comes to safety, they do not compromise on that.

The SA Navy is part of an organisation that focuses on submarine safety, which allows them to be endorsed to operate their submarines.

“In terms of safety, no Navy vessel or submarine will leave the harbour without a crew that is worked up or trained. This vessel, the crew, and the captain are all trained. All the safety precautions were taken, and the vessel was certified to go sea by our own certification entity, which we call operational sea training,” Nkomonde said.

While he said the cause of death of the crew members could have been hyperthermia or downing, he added that the Navy was awaiting the report from the forensic pathologist for confirmation on this.

Crew members were wearing their life jackets, and he said the fact that they were recovered on the surface shows they did not drown.

The submarine was set to be a part of the Mini Navy Festival scheduled for Saturday at the V&A Waterfront and was to be among the crafts open to the public during Heritage Day celebrations, which run from Saturday until Monday.

“We are no longer participating in the Navy mini-festival because of this tragic event,” he said.