Surging ahead

By Drum Digital
26 September 2011

This Maritime Safety Expert heads the organisation that ensures the safety of sea-going vessels on our waters.

When she was a matric learner in Umzimkulu, a rural village in the Eastern Cape, Nontsi Tshazi briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a chartered accountant.

But she changed her mind when she spotted a newspaper story on the shortage of black people in the maritime industry – even though she’d never seen a ship in her life.

As she puts it, she grabbed the opportunity with both hands and today, as the head of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Plattekloof, near Cape Town, she’s making waves in a field traditionally dominated by men.

Nontsi, a qualified tug master and marine pilot, became South Africa’s first female harbour master four years ago.

In January last year she took up her present position and is in charge of ensuring the safety of vessels on South Africa’s waters.

“The MRCC is managed by the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) under the Centre for Sea Watch and Response,” she says.

“Our job is to provide assistance, including search and rescue operations, to vessels that are in the South African coastal territory.”

A normal day in her life could involve anything from dealing with the day-to-day operations of the coordination centre to being at the helm of managing a crisis situation when a vessel in distress needs assistance.

“I make sure that the centre delivers the vital safety services that are in line with the international standards set out by the International Maritime Organisation,” Nontsi explains.

The mother of two daughters, Londiwe and Imitha, Nontsi’s life is busy and she admits that her job is demanding.

“The coordination centre is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she says.

But she is very proud of her achievements and for flying the flag for women in a male-dominated profession. She’s remained steadfast in achieving her goals, and was undaunted by being the only woman in a class of 44 when she started studying.

“I persevered,” she laughs, “even though one of my lecturers told me constantly that a woman’s place was not at sea!

Best part of the job?

When we’ve searched for and recovered vessels that we know are in distress. Also, it’s satisfying when we minimise the risks to affected crew members or prevent a vessel from polluting our waters.

What I wear

I wear anything from smart to formal clothes, but I always make sure I look presentable.

Stress levels

I go to gym, read a book or cook for my family.

Making the most of my natural talent

After school I did maritime studies at the then Natal Technikon. I then went to sea for two years while I was doing my in-service training with Unicorn Shipping Lines.

After I graduated, I joined Transnet to train as a tug master, qualifying in 2001, and a marine pilot, qualifying in 2003.

I then worked in Richards Bay as a marine pilot for three years. I was appointed marine operations manager in East London in 2006. In 2007 I became South Africa’s first harbour master and left to take up my present position last January.


Paving a path for other women to follow and being at the helm in a male-dominated environment.


Trying to locate an activated Emergency Indicating Radio Beacon that has no resolved position.


The long working hours, and having to leave my family, especially my children, when I go on business trips.

Read more in DRUM, 29 September 2011.

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