Three fallen submariners to be ‘forever honoured’ by SA Navy
The deaths of three South African Navy submariners in an accident at sea last week sent shockwaves through the country. On Wednesday, family, friends and colleagues paid tribute to the fallen officers: Master Warrant Officer William Mathipa, Warrant Officer Class One Mokwapa Mojela, and Lieutenant Commander Gillian Hector.
Hundreds of mourners gathered at the Wynberg Military Base Sports Complex in Cape Town on Wednesday morning for the combined memorial service of the three South African Navy submariners who died during an accident involving the submarine SAS ’Manthatisi last week.
Master Warrant Officer William Mathipa (48), Warrant Officer Class One Mmokwapa Mojela (43), and Lieutenant Commander Gillian Hector (33) were among several submariners who were swept overboard by high waves while conducting a vertical transfer using an SA Air Force Maritime Lynx helicopter while on board the SAS ’Manthatisi.
The submarine was just off Kommetjie, in Cape Town, when the incident occurred at about 2.30pm on Wednesday, 20 September. Rescue operations saved the lives of five personnel.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Three dead, five rescued in SA Navy submarine disaster off Kommetjie, Cape Town
At Wednesday’s memorial service, tributes to the deceased officers from family members, friends and colleagues highlighted Hector’s determination and ambition; Mathipa’s pride and hardworking spirit; and Mojela’s kindness and compassion.
“Today, we gather here in numbers I [never expected] to celebrate the lives of three extraordinary individuals: Mojo, Mathipa and Gillian. It is with heavy hearts that we bid them farewell, but it is also with hearts full of gratitude that we remember the immeasurable contributions they made to our lives,” said Warrant Officer Juanita Marais.
“I had the privilege of being there with them when this incident occurred, and I witnessed firsthand their extraordinary bravery; their actions in that critical moment exemplified the highest ideals of service, commitment and sacrifice,” she said.
Marais paid tribute to her fallen colleagues.
“Mojo — with his biggest and brightest smile — had an innate ability to light up any room. He was the one you could always count on… His kindness knew no bounds.
“Mathipa — a proud and confident Limpopo man — was the rock of our crew. His unwavering strength and determination was evident in everything he did… If there was ever anything to fix, Mathipa was the man to call,” she said.
In her speech, Marais described Hector as her “dear friend” and as a “shiny example of tenacity and ambition.
“We shared countless moments together, and she was not only a friend, but a role model to me. Gillian was a proud new mom, and her family was the centre of her world. Her dedication to her loved ones was unwavering and her drive to succeed was truly remarkable,” she said.
Born and raised in Gqeberha, Hector was heralded as the first woman in Africa to navigate a submarine. She moved up the ranks within the Submarine Squadron, where she held the post of executive officer aboard SAS ’Manthatisi at the time of her death.
Also present at the combined memorial service on Wednesday was the captain of the SAS ’Manthatisi, Charles Phokane.
Chief of the South African Navy Vice-Admiral Monde Lobese said, “In my experience, having met Commander Phokane and Lieutenant Commander Hector, you would … think they were brother and sister, because they were always walking together.
“I was thus not surprised to hear that when Commander Phokane saw his friend and colleague being swept overboard by the first wave, he did not hesitate to jump into the water, in order to save her and the other members. He did this without thinking about his own safety, but rather the safety of his shipmates. This is in line with our Code of Conduct which says: ‘I will carry out my mission with courage and assist my comrades-in-arms, even at the risk of my own life’,” he said.
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The three seasoned submariners will be honoured by having buildings named after them. Lobese made the announcement near the end of his 24-page speech, as he fought to hold back tears over the deaths of his comrades. The second he strode off the podium, people applauded. He went to shake the hands of weeping family members.
“I know there is nothing we can do to bring these members back. However, we can forever honour them in the following manner,” Lobese said.
“Hector was well known as one of the brightest submarine officers of her generation. In order to honour her, and to ensure that the next generation of submariners will continue to strive to be the best, the Submarine Training Centre will be renamed the Gillian Hector Training Centre.
“Due to his hard work and always setting the example to those around him, the Submarine Squadron building, called Orca building in the Navy, will be renamed as the Mokwapa Mojela building.
“And lastly, due to his excellence as a submarine electrician, the Submarine Battery Workshop will be renamed the William Mathipa Workshop,” he continued.
‘No stone unturned’
Last week, the SANDF announced that an inquiry into the incident would be convened “in due course”. However, SA Navy authorities stressed that all safety measures had been in place on board the SAS ’Manthatisi.
Read more in Daily Maverick: SA Navy to probe submarine disaster off Kommetjie, but stresses safety measures were adhered to
“I would like to assure each and every one of you here today, as well as the nation at large, that the South African Navy takes the safety of our submarines very seriously.
“We are the only navy in the world that utilises an outside agency to inspect the safety of our submarines,” Lobese said.
“Having said that, I can also announce that I have convened a board of inquiry (No 5 of 2023) to start a full investigation into this incident. This board will be chaired by an experienced submarine officer commanding, whose task is to leave no stone unturned and to examine what happened, and determine what needs to be put in place to prevent such a tragedy from taking place in the future,” he continued.
He did not provide details on the inquiry timeline and processes, but said it “will not be rushed” and would be given “sufficient time to come up with [its] findings and recommendations”.
The findings of the board of inquiry will not be kept secret, Lobese said. He was resolute that the inquiry’s findings would serve to prevent a tragedy such as this from taking place again.
“Despite the many rumours circulating about what happened on that fateful day, this board of inquiry will have the final say on the matter,” he said. DM