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SWEPT OVERBOARD

‘She was exceptional’ – mentor remembers Lt Gillian Malouw-Hector, first woman in Africa to navigate a submarine

‘She was exceptional’ – mentor remembers Lt Gillian Malouw-Hector, first woman in Africa to navigate a submarine
Lieutenant Commander Gillian Hector (33). (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

Veteran Lieutenant Gert van Staden watched Lieutenant Gillian Malouw-Hector soar in her naval career from the very beginning. Here, he talks about a ‘very special’ submariner.

For 20 years Lieutenant Gert van Staden watched out for Gillian Malouw-Hector.

When the navy lost her paperwork, when she couldn’t come home because she needed to study and when the naval cadet camps became hard.

But in the early hours of 21 September, the veteran naval cadet officer could do nothing but hope when the call came about the accident. 

“I was honestly hoping she was sitting on a rock somewhere waiting to be rescued,” he said. 

“I treat all my cadets equally but when I met Gillian I knew she was someone very special.”

Gillian Malouw-Hector

Naval Cadets from the TS Lanherne naval cadet base in Humewood, Gqeberha, Eastern Cape, pay tribute to Gillian Malouw-Hector. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

Lieutenant Gillian Malouw-Hector will be buried next week after she was killed during a tragic submarine accident. She was part of the crew of the SAS ‘Manthatisi that was doing a naval exercise near Kommetjie when large waves swept the crew overboard. Five were saved but three, including Malouw-Hector, died.

According to a statement issued by the navy, the submariners were conducting a vertical transfer using an SA Air Force Maritime Lynx helicopter when they were swept overboard.

Master Warrant Officer William Mathipa (48) and Warrant Officer Class 1 Mmokwapa Mojela (43) also died.

Malouw-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,” the Navy said after her death.

‘The best laugh’

Malouw-Hector joined the Navy Cadets in 2003 and spent a lot of time with Van Staden. 

“She was so shy when I met her.

“I knew that group so well that I could recognise them by their voices. If Gillian was talking I would say: ‘Hey, I know it was you. I know the sounds of your voice.’ She had this little giggle, the best laugh, you could always know it was her.

Gillian Malouw-Hector

Naval Cadet Base commanding officer Lieutenant Gert van Staden pays tribute to Gillian Malouw-Hector at the TS Lanherne Naval Cadet Base in Humewood, Gqeberha. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

“She was an exceptionally helpful person. Her personality was amazing and she was a very good listener. I think many of us remember her for that. She wouldn’t only talk. If you talked to her she really listened. She was the peacemaker in the group.

“Many of them, including her, would call me dad.

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA Navy to probe submarine disaster off Kommetjie, but stresses safety measures were adhered to

“I was at every camp that they had. After a difficult camp, she wrote something that made it so clear that being in the navy was exactly what she wanted to do. Next week when we have her memorial service I will read it. It will be difficult,” he said.

She was truly exceptional. She was not an ordinary seaman. She received nothing for free. She studied, worked and fought for everything she had.

In 2008 Malouw-Hector applied to be admitted to the navy but her paperwork went missing. “I told her not to give up. Come back to the base. I will train you. We will get you in.

“She started training other cadets and I still remember her sitting here marking papers. She spent so much time with them. Then one day in 2009 at a navy concert, the admiral still asked me: Gert, why is this one not in the navy? I told him. He said to her: ‘Get yourself to Simon’s Town, we will sort out the paperwork.’”

Malouw-Hector joined the navy in 2010.

“She never came back again,” Van Staden said.

When others came home she said she had to remain behind and study. 

“When she phoned I would complain that she never comes to visit. She would say: I know where I am going. I have to study.”

At first I was in disbelief. I was convinced that she would be sitting on a rock somewhere waiting for the rescuers to pick her up.

Finally, she came down one day. She walked in and she just hugged me.

“I have come to visit,” she said.

“She wasn’t a person who was bothered about her rank. When I wanted to address her by her rank she would say: ‘Don’t call me that. You know who I am.’”

And then the call came at 2am.

A naval cadet rings the bell at the TS Lanherne Naval Cadet Base in Humewood, Gqeberha, in honour of Gillian Malouw-Hector. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

“At first I was in disbelief. I was convinced that she would be sitting on a rock somewhere waiting for the rescuers to pick her up. I went into my office and I thought I would have to look through hundreds of files to find hers, but hers was the first one I had picked up. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Three fallen submariners to be ‘forever honoured’ by SA Navy

“I have been doing this for 37 years. She was truly exceptional. She was not an ordinary seaman. She received nothing for free. She studied, worked and fought for everything she had. When I think back, some of the cadets will always stand out for me and she will be one.”

Now there is only one more thing he can do – make a memorial plaque for Malouw-Hector at the naval cadet base in Gqeberha, where it all started.

“We will have a memorial service for her here, where she was so happy, next Friday,” he said. “It is the only thing I can still do.” DM

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