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“Maverick Manikkam” - The first female commercial diver at the Port of Durban

Roxanne Ross-Manikkam is the first female commercial diver to work at the Port of Durban. Picture: SIBONELO NGCOBO African News Agency (ANA)

Roxanne Ross-Manikkam is the first female commercial diver to work at the Port of Durban. Picture: SIBONELO NGCOBO African News Agency (ANA)

Published Mar 19, 2022

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ROXANNE Ross-Manikkam, the first female commercial diver at the Port of Durban, is often referred to as “Maverick Manikkam”.

Over the years, she gained a reputation for unorthodox achievements in her field, thus the nickname.

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Born and raised in Newlands East, the 38-year-old credited her upbringing for her independent thinking and perseverance.

“My parents had five daughters. My family owned a piping and fabrication company, so we were exposed to construction, but it wasn’t about the industry. I think, for my parents, it was more about empowering us as women from young.

“For example, they made sure we knew the basics like learning to drive a car and changing a tyre. We were kept aware that just because we were five daughters, it didn't mean we could not do these kinds of things. That awareness, that I am able to do anything that a man can do, comes from the way our parents raised us.”

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Picture: SIBONELO NGCOBO African News Agency (ANA)

Ross-Manikkam attended Barracuda, Northway and Chelsea Preparatory primary schools (respectively) in her early years. She later attended Hillview Secondary. After school, she worked for different companies and in varying positions pertaining to construction.

“I was a site manager and I was a quality inspector, so the construction aspect always stuck with me. At one point, I had been handling plumbing work for over five or six years, and a gentleman in the industry encouraged me to get a trade test, so I did.

“Actually, I became the first coloured female trade tested plumber in Durban. After that, I did my International Organization for Standardization (ISO) registration. Later, I studied project management at Varsity College and then got some safety courses behind me. I tried to empower myself within the construction industry.”

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Picture: SIBONELO NGCOBO African News Agency (ANA)

Ross-Manikkam said when she started working for Transnet, she realised there was a skills shortage.

“I found out there was not one female commercial diver produced at the Port of Durban and we have the biggest port in South Africa. That intrigued me. I thought I had always loved the water, I had always been exposed to the water, and I wanted to close that gender gap.”

Picture: Instagram/@Roxy Ross Manikkam

Stereotype, challenges

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Ross-Mannikam said the thought that commercial diving was a man’s work was a stereotype.

“There are many aspects to being a commercial diver. You have to be trained as an advanced commercial diver to actually do a range of tasks like underwater inspections, repairs, removals, rigging work, underwater welding, navigating, water jetting, and hull cleaning.

Picture: Instagram/@Roxy Ross Manikkam

“Some people think this is a man’s job, but when I got to the Port of Durban, my organisation gave me the opportunity and exposure to be able to become a commercial diver. In my organisation, we believe that any organisation that fails to harness the energy and creativity of its female workforce is at a huge disadvantage in the world.”

But swimming in the deep end in a male-dominated space also comes with challenges.

“I think one of the greatest challenges for women, and I've come across this myself, is that we generally have to work harder and prove ourselves even more in a male-dominated space. We have to put in twice the effort.

“I always give people my personal experience by way of example. What made it harder for me at diving school was a particular naysayer. He always discouraged me, and he undermined my abilities, but I thank God I never doubted myself because I managed to pass on many occasions. I proved him wrong.

“So that stereotype and mindset that only males can dominate in certain areas, and that only they can do things in those areas, still needs to change, and it has changed, largely. We find a lot more women in higher positions in construction, but there is still room for improvement.”

There will always be some who try to make it difficult for women to succeed, said Ross-Manikkam.

“But work harder if you have to. Don't limit yourself. They started calling me Maverick Manikkam, and now that I think about it, it kind of sums up what pushed me right through my career in a male-dominated industry. Everything that I had to do was unorthodox. I had to have an independent mindset that ‘this is the goal, this is what I want to achieve, it's not going to be easy, but I will have to push through’.

Picture: SIBONELO NGCOBO African News Agency (ANA)

“This month, we celebrate International Women's Month. In August, we will celebrate Women's Day and Women's Month in South Africa, so in many aspects the world is changing and helping to change that stereotype mindset. Whether they want to accept it or not, we are being celebrated. Women's voices are more heard today, and when I say that, I don't mean by shouting it from the rooftops. Our numbers are increasing in these specialised fields, and as our numbers increase, it silences that inferiority that some men have imposed on us.”

Opportunities

Ross-Manikkam said grab hold of opportunities while you are young.

“My personal experience is this: I am almost 40 years old. Had someone told me that there's something called a commercial diver when I was in school with all that young energy, I can guarantee you, I would have been a commercial diver at the age of 18.

“Don't wait for a later age to take on such responsibilities. Whereas when you come out of school, it's a different situation. You are fitter, and you have less responsibilities at home.”

She said we lived in an information age.

“We have a wealth of information out there. Use it to find out more about what skills are needed. But it's often not getting information that's not the problem. It's getting the support that can be a challenge, and I’m hoping our schools and communities will come together to help more young women access more platforms for skills development.

“For me, this is definitely not my end goal. I’ve done my research, and I have a few more surprises up my sleeve. But this is my first time exposing myself and exposing this kind of field. I hope other young women will learn from my mistakes and grow in confidence.

“I'm hoping to see a lot more young women rise up and do better than me and what other women are doing currently. I hope to see a better generation come up in this industry.”

Follow her journey on Instagram.

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