‘I was just a normal village girl’ - SA’s first black female navy commander

2015-10-12 10:17
Zimasa Mabela, South Africa's first black female navy commander. (Screengrab from News24 video)

Zimasa Mabela, South Africa's first black female navy commander. (Screengrab from News24 video)

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Cape Town - As a girl in the village of Lady Frere, Zimasa Mabela’s life revolved around school, and fetching firewood and water from the river.

The country’s first black female navy commander says she only saw the sea for the first time when she was 18.

“I guess, having read books and watched movies, it was not something to be shocked by and say: ‘so much water!’” the 38-year-old told News24 aboard her vessel, the SAS Umhloti.

“I wasn’t scared of the water because where I grew up, we had swimming pools.”

Mabela and her friends used to sneak off to the pools at a Catholic mission in McKay’s Neck Village.

It was the place to be “for fun and to relax” especially on hot Eastern Cape days, although their parents never approved.

“I guess they were not used to that. Maybe they were scared we might drown. When you come back with your wet skin, they say okay, you have been there,” the mother to two young girls said with a laugh.

‘It looked really cool’

Going below board, the smell of sizzling steaks wafted through the cramped corridors.

Two crew members smiled and greeted as a Michael Jackson tune played in the background.
Mabela has been commander of the vessel docked at the Simon’s Town base for just over a month.

She heard about the navy from her friends and attended a presentation while studying a BsC in education at university.

“I saw the pictures of people sitting in front of the big radar screens. It looked really cool. I imagined myself being there!”

She decided not to finish her degree and joined the navy in 1999, working her way up the ranks.


While she still felt like she was finding her feet in the new position, Mabela said she was enjoying everything coming her way and was prepared to ask for help where necessary.

“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.”

It was about the ability to do the job rather than gender, she added.

She felt hopeful about the career prospects for kids in a village or township.

“If you want to join the navy and end up where I am or even further, you can do it. They mustn’t be scared. It is all in the heart I guess.”

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