Johannesburg - The South African Navy suffered one of its worst tragedies in recent history this week, with the loss of three submariners in the Atlantic off the coast of Kommetjie on the Cape peninsula.
Lieutenant Commander Gillian Hector, coxswain Master Warrant Officer Masela Mathipa and Warrant Officer 1 Mmokwapa Mojela perished when they were swept off the SAS Manthathisi during a surface exercise. Four other sailors, who also ended up in the sea, were successfully rescued.
The SANDF has a proud record of smashing glass ceilings in traditionally male-dominated combat environments, from fighter aircraft, submarines and paratroopers to generals in the field. Hector was a pioneer; she was the first woman submarine navigator and the first woman executive officer. She would, in all probability, have become the navy’s first female submarine commander and, in doing so, one of only a handful of female submarine commanders worldwide.
She and her shipmates; Mathilda and Mojela, leave families. They died during a training exercise at sea – and this, of course, is the second tragedy. But the reality is that soldiers and sailors have to train to do their jobs. Their jobs involve danger. Sometimes, the jobs exact the highest price of all – the sacrifice of their lives in order to protect others.
The tragedy is that South Africa, despite all the eulogies we will hear as the country takes its leave of the three fine sailors, does not care that much for the men and women it entrusts to guard the sovereign integrity of the country.
If it did, it would not be continuously slashing the defence budget.
We need more people like Hector, Mathipa and Mojela, not fewer. We should honour them by ensuring that we have a defence force that is properly equipped, funded and trained.