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SA Navy to probe submarine disaster off Kommetjie, but stresses safety measures were adhered to

SA Navy to probe submarine disaster off Kommetjie, but stresses safety measures were adhered to
Crew members who were victims of the navy submarine tragedy, from left: Master Warrant Officer William Malesela Mathipa, Lieutenant Commander Gillian Elizabeth Hector and Warrant Officer Mmokwapa Lucas Mojela. (Photo: X / @AfricaStoryLive | Supplied)

South African Navy authorities have stressed that ‘all safety measures’ were in place before an incident involving the South African Navy submarine SAS ’Manthatisi. However, an inquiry will be set up to probe the incident.

‘No Navy vessel, submarine or surface vessel, will leave harbour without a crew that is worked-up or trained. This vessel [SAS ’Manthatisi] – the crew, the captain – they are all trained. All the safety precautions were taken, and the vessel was certified to go to sea by our own certification entity,” said SA Navy Flag Officer Fleet Admiral Musawenkosi Nkomonde on the evening of Thursday, 21 September.

Nkomonde was speaking at a press conference held at Simon’s Town Naval Base, where he provided more details on the naval accident involving the SA Navy submarine SAS ’Manthatisi, which was off Kommetjie in Cape Town when high waves swept seven crew members out to sea on Wednesday afternoon.

submarine disaster nkomonde

Admiral Musawenkosi ‘Kop’ Nkomonde. (Photo: Supplied)

submarine disaster

The South African navy submarine SAS ’Manthatisi in Hout Bay, Cape Town, shortly after the accident on 20 September 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

SAS ’Manthatisi was en route to Table Bay from Simon’s Town for the South African Navy Festival, scheduled to take place at the V&A Waterfront from 23 to 25 September. The festival has now been cancelled. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Three dead, five rescued in SA Navy submarine disaster off Kommetjie, Cape Town

The submariners were in the process of conducting a vertical transfer (Vertrep) using an SA Air Force Maritime Lynx helicopter when they were swept overboard. Rescue operations launched before 3pm on Wednesday saved the lives of five personnel. However, three submariners died during the incident.

On Thursday, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) released the names of the deceased SA Navy submariners: Master Warrant Officer William Mathipa (48), Warrant Officer Class One Mmokwapa Mojela (43), and Lieutenant Commander Gillian Hector (33).

Hector was heralded as the first woman in Africa to navigate a submarine.

“It is a huge loss for the South African Navy, the entire Department of Defence and the country as a whole. [Hector] was the first female to qualify in her position in the submarine, [and] she was also on the verge of becoming the first female commanding officer… It took years of training for her to get here,” said Nkomonde.

The five remaining crew members had been admitted to hospital, with the SANDF saying one senior official was in critical condition on Wednesday. 

“As we speak now, those members that were admitted to hospital, three have been discharged and one is still in the hospital [and] is stable and recovering – he will be discharged tomorrow morning,” said Nkomonde.

submarine disaster ’Manthatisi

The South African Navy submarine SAS ’Manthatisi in Simon’s Town harbour on 21 September 2023. (Photo: Victoria O’Regan)

He said plans were being made for a combined memorial service for the three crew members. However, SA Navy officials still needed to consult with the families of the deceased.

Training exercises and safety measures

At the press conference, Nkomonde provided more details on what transpired during the vertical transfer exercise:

“One of the evolutions that they were performing is called a vertical replenishment (vertical transfer), that is the transferring of personnel or equipment from a helicopter to a submarine, or the reversal.

“In this case, our submarine SAS ’Manthatisi was exercising with the SA Air Force Maritime Lynx helicopter. They were going to transfer personnel from the helicopter to the submarine. However, unfortunately, an accident occurred during that evolution. The members of the submarine were on the upper deck, waiting to receive the personnel from the helicopter, and were swept off, overboard, by a wave.

“Then that’s where the casualties started. 

“Initially, three members were swept overboard, and the other crew members were trying to assist them, and they were also swept by a second wave. A surface swimmer from the helicopter, who’s normally a safety [monitor] for such evolutions was lowered into the water to assist with the rescue or recovery of the members who fell overboard,” he said.

submarine disaster

The NSRI rescued crew from the South African Navy submarine SAS ’Manthatisi (S101) off Kommetjie in Cape Town on 20 September 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Nkomonde said the crew members who were swept overboard were recovered and brought back on board. However, the sea was getting rougher and the rescue operation was becoming difficult.

“We managed to recover three of them on board, and the others were recovered [by] the NSRI [National Sea Rescue Institute],” he said. 

Nkomonde stressed that when these evolutions took place, “safety is of the utmost importance”.

“All the safety measures were in place, all the members … were wearing life jackets and safety harness which are our safety measures…”

“All training operations are conducted under control conditions, that is why … there was a safety swimmer on board that helicopter. That is why we have them [a safety swimmer] so that when such incidents occur, they can come to the rescue,” he said in response to questions from Daily Maverick.

Several witnesses of the rescue efforts in Kommetjie told Daily Maverick on Wednesday that the swells off the coast were huge.

submarine disaster

The South African Navy submarine SAS ’Manthatisi in Simon’s Town harbour on 21 September 2023. (Photo: Victoria O’Regan)

Maritime Project Leader at the Institute for Security Studies, Tim Walker told Daily Maverick that this kind of accident involving a submariner being swept off a submarine during surface operations was not necessarily “out of the blue” and had occurred in the past.

“Accidents happen, and with our navy – and in fact any navy – when they’re put to sea they’re always doing their best, and submariners are arguably the most skilled and dedicated because of the challenges they face,” he said.

Speaking to the rescue operations and the conditions at sea, Walker said: “There’ve been several incidents over the last couple of years where the NSRI and the South African Maritime Safety Authority​ have really done everything they can to try and save lives at sea. So the fact that they weren’t able to do this, relatively close to the shore, just goes to show how bad the conditions were.”

Establishment of an inquiry

An SANDF statement released on Wednesday night said that an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the incident would be convened “in due course”.

Nkomonde could not provide more details about the inquiry timeline and processes.  

“For now we’re just focusing on supporting the victims who were injured, the crew members – because this is traumatic, as you can understand. Once we have settled that, the Chief of the Navy will pronounce, as soon as possible, the board of inquiry will be convened, and we will know what happened,” he said. 

Given that all safety measures were allegedly in place, Nkomonde said it was crucial to convene an inquiry, “to establish what happened and to prevent a future recurrence of what happened”.

In response to questions on whether it was wise to conduct an exercise of that nature, given the high waves and strong winds which have battered the coastal areas of the Western and Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal in the past week, Nkomonde said he did “not want to speculate”.

“However, the captain of the submarine would’ve made that call, to make an assessment, to check if the conditions were safe for such an evolution to be conducted. We were all not there, so we are waiting now for the people who were there, to give us first-hand information when we conduct our inquiry,” he said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The ‘angry sea’ just ‘kept coming’ – ‘frightening’ weekend storm batters coastal areas of SA

Maritime experts who spoke to Daily Maverick echoed Nkomonde’s remarks, saying the commanding officer would typically assess the sea conditions shortly before conducting a vertical replenishment exercise to decide whether to proceed.


On Thursday morning, the Presidency issued a statement saying President Cyril Ramaphosa was “deeply saddened” by the loss of the three crew members who perished at sea off Kommetjie. 

“This is a sad loss for our nation and for our brave armed forces in particular who routinely face danger in order so that all of us can be safe and secure. My thoughts and prayers go out to the families, friends, commanders and colleagues of the crew members we have lost.

“We wish the injured personnel a full recovery from the physical and psychological trauma they experienced during this tragedy. We also appreciate the efforts of all role players who, at great risk to themselves, undertook the rescue and recovery operation,” said Ramaphosa. 

Condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of the deceased SA Navy crew members were also sent by the parliamentary portfolio committee on defence and military veterans and its chairperson, Cyril Xaba.

Cape Town Mayor Geordin-Hill Lewis, on X (formerly Twitter), said he was “saddened to hear of the loss of the three SA Navy sailors”.

“We mourn the loss of these servicemen and pray that they will know our gratitude for their service to our country,” he said. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Seymour Howe says:

    Another multi-million Rand enquiry which will be treated with the same dose of Cadre Protection as the Lady R debacle – only parts will be released to the Public, “In the interest of National Security”. This bunch of incompetents is costing thousands of lives and destroying everything that is left of the Country.

  • fimpel says:

    “evolution”???? = “gradual change in the characteristics of living things over successive generations especially to a more complex form”.

  • andrew.morrissey says:

    Sorry to say, but this smacks of another enquiry that will keep a group of people (who might even have a foregone conclusion) busy at spending the taxpayer’s money, only for the Report to be inconclusive, or completely ignored.

  • Graeme J says:

    Isn’t it tragic and ironic that a group of volunteers from the NSRI (the best charity in the country BTW) have to rescue a bunch of “professionals” from our navy?

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      The only bits of our little banana republic that still work are operated by the private sector. Luckily the people in charge of the military are shame proof.

    • Stuart Kaptein says:

      Doing an exercise in the worst weather conditions in years? Poor leadership. Personnel on the deck in those conditions without restaining cable? Incompetence.
      3 sailors died, serving this country. I salute them. Their deaths were unnecessary and completely avoidable.

      The amazing professionalism, courage, and pure grit of the NSRI, is what needs to be noted and celebrated here. Unpaid volunteers, rescuing a navy sub on inflatable boats… looks like the navy need to send their crews for training at the NSRI.

  • Michael Moore says:

    To me, this looks like a toxic combination of extreme sea conditions – which must have been evident to all concerned upon leaving Simonstown – and a failure to take the tough decision and cancel the transfer exercise. This was an exercise, not an emergency. It need never have been carried out, given the weather.

  • Jeff Dooley says:

    I’m saddened by every the unnecssary death of a human being.

    Having said that, isn’t it time we asked: Why do we need submarines? Why a navy? Why do we need a military at all? There is no threat from our neighbours, and we could never defend against a super power. We would rely on the UN to send in forces likes they did in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. So why not abandon the military and use the resources to fund healthcare, education and social upliftment. Thats what Costa Rica did in 1949. Just imagine!

    • Iam Fedup says:

      Aah, Jeff, but you forget one very important fact: because all military spending is not transparent by any means, you can hide all sorts of corruption, thievery, bribes, and incompetence with these arms deals. The ANC may consist mostly of insignificant morons, but they are brilliant at two things: theft and destruction.

  • Erna Westdyk says:

    “just goes to show how bad the conditions were.”
    This is the only problem I have – did no one think of checking on the weather conditions? Even inland we were aware of the huge waves and “angry sea” in the Cape.

  • George 007 says:

    Safety protocols were not the problem here. Given the wind and waves in the area, the maneuver should have been canceled before the sub even left Simon’s Town. Admiral Musawenkosi ‘Kop’ Nkomonde needs to step down.

    • Iam Fedup says:

      Does anyone else see the irony in the Admirals nickname – “Kop”? Rather an empty kop, I would imagine.

    • If you going to have a competent naval force, they must train under all conditions. However safety precautions need to be adhered to – like wearing adequate safety harnesses and lifejackets. How does a submariner get separated from the deck to a degree that the NSRI is required to collect the bodies of drowned mariners. The deck of a submarine in heavy seas in a hostile place to attempt staying upright on. There’s little in a way of handholds on deck. It’s naked, possibly slippery metal and very narrow. The submarine lays low in the water and rough waves can easily breach the deck. Wearing a strong harness attached to a strong point on deck would be essential. The submariners standing on deck in heavy seas should be wearing survival gear with built in floatation capability.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    I agree with you Jeff, but consider that we do need a navy of sorts to protect our waters from exploitative fishing by unscrupulous entities. But submarines etc??? Remember too that we have to have at least 1 frigate and submarine (the rest are non-operational and that’s another issue) so can that, as pathetic minnows and servants, we can participate and “contribute” to the meaningless and idiotic naval exercises with the evil Putin Russia. Remember too as stated years ago by another clueless and dimwitted defence minister (seems to be the overriding criteria to qualify) when questioned why we needed the arms deal – her response was in case the US attacked us. The stupidity knows no bounds in the anc.

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      Quote – “consider that we do need a navy of sorts to protect our waters from exploitative fishing”.

      Great stuff, BUT… Go to Bettys Bay on any day of the week and spot the perlemoen poachers just walking down the beach with their diving gear. NO ACTION FROM THE NAVY OR THE POICE!!

      An active, honest, compact (no subs) navy would be just the right thing.

  • Trevor Thompson says:

    “…… safety harnesses were worn”. If harnesses were attached to safety lines then the persons washed off the deck would have been attached to the vessel and could be recovered more easily.

  • Dietmar Horn says:

    “three members were swept overboard, and the other crew members were trying to assist them, and they were also swept by a second wave.” That sounds like beginners on a dinghy.

  • Chris Lee says:

    There should be no place at all for the word “unfortunately” in the Admiral’s statement. ‘Fortune’ should not come into it – that is why high risk environments conduct risk assessments, or – at least should. Very sad for all involved.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    Expecting the Navy to be any more competent and capable than anything else under state control is delusional. Thank goodness there will be another ‘enquiry’.

  • mjhauptstellenbosch says:

    What was needed here is humble-male-common-sense!

    I was on a frigate many decades ago,
    and i was present when a senior seaman said to our captain:

    “Sir, we cannot do that!”

    We all were fully trained,
    not tainted by a hidden feeling that we don’t deserve to be there,
    but humble enough to acknowledge dangerous situations.

    On another trip we sailed to Gough Island,
    with a helicopter on board,
    to pick up a sick person on the island,
    and the pilots refused to use the helicopter to rescue that man,
    because of the wind, waves and swelling.

    Not because they were cowards,
    but because they were well trained,
    they used common sense and
    their egos did not get in the way

  • David Crossley says:

    To allow any personnel onto the deck of a submarine in such atrocious weather is simply inviting tragedy – what on earth possessed the commanding officer to allow this suicidal exercise?

  • If safety measures were adhered to why did three people perish??? The question is did they have life jackets on??? ??safety harness?? to me its smacks of incompetence of those in charge! Well done the NSRI, see what happens with competent people, lives are saved!!

  • Trevor Bennett says:

    Wow! The comments here are unbelievable. People died in service of their country and people act as though those involved did it intentionally or through incompetence. If you are ignorant on maritime, navy and military matters please don’t comment. It is hurtful towards the dead and those involved. Similar incidents happen and have happened in other so called first world navies. People should not jump to conclusions that this was due to incompetence. The tribunal/inquest will show what happened and why. Let the facts come out. Speculation causes unnecessary grief.

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      This is Msanzi, the enquiry will reveal precisely nothing and no one will be held accountable. What makes you think that the leadership of the Navy is competent? If they are it would be quite a notable bucking of the trend of every other part of the military.

    • Chris Lee says:

      Trevor. The weather was atrocious. That alone should have been enough reason not to put 7 personnel on a deck – you do not need to be a maritime expert to work that out.

    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      In any effectively run country I would agree, but in this country people die all the time in every facet of our society. A quick search will show you that an average of 74 PEOPLE ARE MURDERED DAILY. Add to these deaths people who die from shocking hospital care, snake bites because surprise, we have no anti venom, road deaths etc and I guarantee you 2 things:
      1. That the number of daily deaths is huge; and
      2. That nearly all are preventable given a government with any sort of clue.

      And given the above you are really and truly shocked that the first thing rational people do is question the quality of our military leadership? Really? Honestly?

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      The catastrophe was not intentional. What was intentional was carrying out an exercise in adverse conditions. That appears to me to be incompetence.

      PS: I am not ignorant on marine matters.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Get off your high-horse Trevor. That is precisely the point – people died UNNECESSARILY in the service of their country! Firstly, such exercise should never be taken in extreme weather such that it was on the day, unless it was an emergency and not a plain exercise. Secondly, if all the safety procedures were followed e.g. life jackets, harnesses etc. the chances are that no lives would have been lost. Thirdly, with the hideous anc’s dismal record of whitewashing enquiries or declaring certain parts prohibited as state security, you can bet your bottom dollar that the public will be misled. No one takes comfort in the loss of these service people!

  • No Thanks says:

    Sailors on a submarine tend to die when their vessel is torpedoed at great depths in the ocean. In this case 7 sailors were washed overboard while the submarine was on the surface. All were wearing life jackets and all were excellent swimmers.. -they’re sailors, right? Two died, I assume drowned, rest were rescued. The navigator died on board – assume she was knocked unconscious with the sub swinging around. I wonder when this sub last made a proper trip at the appropriate depth around our coast, or to Antarctica? Lemme guess: never? If these sailors were called upon to defend the country from an attack one shudders to imagine the stuff-ups that would then happen. So all the pieties about gratitude for ‘dying in the service of our country’ are empty phrases intended to appease the politicians and their gullible voters. Shut down this unnecessary display of corrupt govt., save billions, spare us another rise in VAT.

  • George (Mike) Berger says:

    Reassurances are being taken at face value. It looks like an effort to exculpate without due process.
    Eg. Why did the captain feel it necessary to conduct the exercise under clearly adverse conditions?
    How many times had this been done previously with the personnel involved in the current calamity?
    Should they not have had a safety boat standing by?
    How fit and experienced in adverse sea conditions are the submariners involved,
    Etc, etc
    My guess is a proper enquiry would reveal misjudgement and inadequate training and precautions. Are these now acceptable standards?

  • Vivian Carver says:

    News had it the sub was actually not seaworthy as it could not dive. Secondly could crew swim even with safety vests? Ws weather conditions taken into account, no

    • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

      I thought that this kind of submarine had disappeared after World War II?

      • No Thanks says:

        No, at the time it was the best and most expensive sub that german industry could produce. SA was not allowed to buy a nuclear sub due to the non-proliferation treaty (thank god). I read somewhere it was just back from repairs/maintenance and was seaworthy.

      • Ben Harper says:

        How on earth did you figure that? 42 Countries operate submarines, only 6 have nuclear powered subs

  • Paul Khan says:

    The other tragedy in this sad day in our history is the hateful comments being posted on social media. And the ignorance of rich South Africans who hardly ever watch the news, preferring to live in a cocoon of entitlement and privilege. Espousing a hate ideology towards Blacks. This is a huge loss to our Navy. It is so easy to criticize and destroy the reputation of Gillian Hector. Worse accidents have occurred internationally. Had the accident not have occurred, the Heritage Day celebration would have been enjoyed by all and inspired young people to follow in the path of Gillian. My heart and prayers goes out to the families of those three brave souls. As for all the haters out there who use this tragedy to highlight failings in our government, no prayers can ever save your soul.

    • No Thanks says:

      Ah, typical holier-than-thou response to some valid criticism of this escapade. If Hector was indeed commanding this sub, then she took the wrong decision to allow it to go ahead. She paid the ultimate price so no further comment needed in this direction. Until now, no-one has in fact criticised her personally.

      • Antonio Tonin says:

        Hector was not commanding the sub. She was 2IC. Her death is a tragedy and was not caused by any deficiency in her own abilities or actions

        • Ben Harper says:

          We don’t know that. If she was the senior officer on deck she would have been responsible for the people engaged on the upper deck involved in the exercise and it would have been part of her duty to ensure all safety protocols were followed. However, the person ultimately accountable for this is the Captain of the Sub, he holds complete and absolute accountability and responsibility for everything onboard the vessel

          • Antonio Tonin says:

            We do know that. The captain was Commander Charles Phokane. What we also know is that he was washed off the deck himself so was also on the upper deck at some point in the tragic incident.

    • Dietmar Horn says:

      “the ignorance of rich South Africans who hardly ever watch the news, preferring to live in a cocoon of entitlement and privilege. Espousing a hate ideology towards Blacks.”
      For me, such a claim is nothing other than reverse racism and
      discrimination. I often encounter people who have run out of arguments.
      “As for all the haters out there who use this tragedy to highlight
      failings in our government, no prayers can ever save your soul.”
      Does this now reflect the spirit of Christian charity? Or is this pious chatter nothing but fake empathy?

    • Ben Harper says:

      No, what would be sad is if people did NOT speak out and criticize! Incompetence killed people! Would you prefer everyone shuts up and more people die unnecessarily?

      Suggest you take that huge chip off of your shoulder

  • Many questions to be answered once again when it comes to ongoing disasters due to incompetence, nepotism, corruption etc. Why do people have to die if safety measures are in place? How can you blame the weather when even fisherman don’t go out in boats after checking weather reports on google? When will our President heed to his “wake up call” and understand that AA should be buried at least 15 years ago and people with the best skills get the job done to improve our service delivery for our country.

  • Yaku de Beer says:

    Always so refreshing to read the analysis based on fact from our local South African defence experts.

  • As reported, if these submariners were in fact harnessed to the deck of the submarine, why then did they separate from the submarine? Why then was it necessary for NSRI to be involved. It seems that the submariners were not only fell overboard, but completely separated from the submarine – meaning that either the safety harness was hopelessly inadequate, broke or…. was not in fact used at all… Having harnesses and lifejackets available onboard does not necessary mean they were in use at the time of the incident. Surely the NSRI could attest to wether or not the bodies recovered had lifejackets and remnants of a broken harness still attached?

  • The submariners should have been wearing safety helmets like the NSRI wear if they were out on deck. They probably had their heads banged on the sun sides

  • jstoltz says:

    Just be aware that even in difficult conditions these people have to be able to operate. Maybe they just don’t train in these conditions enough! Just a thought.

    • Ben Harper says:

      Just a thought… if people used their safety gear properly the chances of fatal accidents reduces tremendously, i.e. if their safety harness and life line was properly tethered on deck they would not have been washed overboard. Just a thought

  • Ben Harper says:

    At the end of the day, one man and one man alone is responsible for this tragedy and that is the Captain of the vessel. That is the law of the sea.

  • John Kannemeyer says:

    I have only one question, if we ever went to war from a navel perspective, would the NSRI have to be taken with to handle any medical emergency?

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