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PostPosted: 28 Sep 2023, 12:40 
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28 September 2023: defenceWeb

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SA Navy holds memorial service for fallen submariners

By Dean Wingrin

Family, colleagues and friends gathered at a moving commemoration service at the Wynberg Military Base Sports Complex in Cape Town on Wednesday to honour the submariners lost at sea just a week earlier, and share passionate tributes to the departed.

The three South African Navy (SA Navy) sailors tragically lost their lives when waves swept them off the SAS Manthatisi off the Kommetjie Coast on the Cape Peninsula on 20 September.

"Stay together, help is coming!" These were the words shouted by Commander Moses Mekhoe to the submariners swept overboard last Wednesday. Despite a dramatic rescue effort, SAS Manthatisi Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Gillian Hector (33), the Coxswain, Master Warrant Officer William Masela Mathipa (48) and Coxswain under training Warrant Officer First Class Mmokwapa Lucas Mojela (43), all perished in the incident. Four others who tried to save them were hospitalised.

Expressing gratitude to the Hector, Mathipa and Mojela and families, Chief of the SA Navy Vice Admiral Monde Lobese extended special thanks to the various rescue organizations involved in the search and recovery efforts, including the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) and other air, sea and land emergency response teams.

Lobese then proceeded to honour the submariners, describing them as dedicated members of the SA Navy who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their submarine, squadron, Navy and country. He highlighted their selflessness and willingness to assist others without expecting anything in return.

He conveyed his sadness at the loss of these "true patriots" and recalled his last interaction with them, expressing joy and confidence in their safe voyage as they prepared for the Mini Navy Festival at the V&A Waterfront.

The SAS Manthatisi was en-route to Cape Town while conducting a VERTREP (Vertical Replenishment) exercise with a South African Air Force Super Lynx helicopter when, shortly after 14h30 off Kommetjie, high waves swept seven crew members out to sea.

The VERTREP evolution was immediately cancelled and efforts were launched to recover the members. A surface swimmer was dispatched from the helicopter to assist with the rescue. The recovery operation was negatively affected by rough sea conditions. Four of the rescuers were hospitalized, including Commander Charles Phokane (Officer Commanding, SAS Manthatisi) who jumped into the raging seas to assist his Executive Officer. Others who did not hesitate to leap to assist their colleagues were Chief Petty Officer Rofhiwa Maphari, Warrant Officer First Class Brendan Daly (helicopter safety swimmer), Warrant Officer Second Class Charles Kriel, Lieutenant Melinyani Gobinca and Warrant Officer Second Class Ayanda Mahlobo.

Lobese emphasized that the submariners were highly experienced and qualified members of the elite Submarine Squadron. He acknowledged the significant loss to the SA Navy and the country as a whole, as the expertise and competence of these individuals cannot be easily replaced. However, he recognized that the loss for the families is even greater, as they have lost fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, mothers, daughters, sisters and wives.

Lobese assured everyone that the South African Navy takes the safety of their submarines seriously. It is the only Navy to use an outside agency, Det Norske Veritas (DNV), to inspect the safety of its submarines, providing a third-party assurance on their condition. The submarines are only allowed to go to sea with approval from the SA Navy Naval Engineering Section, in collaboration with DNV.

"I know there is nothing we can do to bring these members back," Lobese said. "However, we can forever honour them."

In memory of the departed members, an emotional Lobese announced that the Submarine Training Centre was to be renamed the Gillian Hector Training Centre, in honour of one of the brightest submarine officers of her generation. The Submarine Squadron building (ORCA building) will be renamed after Mokwapa Mojela, and the Submarine Battery Workshop will now be known as the William Mathipa Workshop, recognizing his excellence as a submarine electrician.

Lobese thanked "the South African public for coming out in numbers to come and pay homage to the fallen South Africans, heroes of the nation, the people that actually will sacrifice all that they have … to be able to be the servants of the people."

"It's something that was definitely never expected," he continued, "but we know as we signed our application forms, to say that we will lay down our lives so that we can be able to defend this country. So the loss is too much for us to bear. But we hope that their souls are resting in peace because they died in combat, serving the South African flag, serving the people so that people can today sleep peacefully."

Budget cuts

Addressing the country's politicians, Lobese noted that the tragedy should serve as a wake-up call not only to the SA Navy and South African National Defence Force (SANDF), but to the entire government.

"The SANDF and the SA Navy has for too long suffered with constant reductions in our budget," he said. "Although our budget is cut every year, our Constitutional Mandate is not reduced in any way. We are still expected to make miracles with the little money that we have."

The modern SA Navy relies on advanced technology, he explained, and maintaining this equipment is costly.

"These constant budget cuts make it impossible to fulfil our Constitutional Mandate. Thus Government must make the decision to either properly fund the SANDF, or to reduce our responsibilities, because we cannot continue as we are currently doing," Lobese expounded.

Lobese has convened a Board of Enquiry (no 5 of 2023) to start a full investigation into the submarine incident. Chaired by an experienced Submarine Officer Commanding, Lobese said the Board's 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."

"This Board will not be rushed and we will give them sufficient time to come up with their findings and recommendations," he said.

The Navy Chief noted that the Board "will not be kept secret, but will serve as a beacon to guide the deployment of SA Navy submarines into the future."

The Board is expected to commence its work on 11 October and submit its report a month later.


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Commander Charles Phokane (Officer Commanding, SAS Manthatisi), Chief Petty Officer Rofhiwa Maphari, Warrant Officer First Class Brendan Daly (helicopter safety swimmer), Warrant Officer Second Class Charles Kriel, Lieutenant Melinyani Gobinca and Warrant Officer Second Class Ayanda Mahlobo.

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