Gillian Malouw, the first woman in Africa to navigate a submarine, has died at sea

South Africans are mourning Lieutenant-Commander Gillian Malouw, the country’s only female officer to navigate a submarine and Africa’s first female submarine officer, who was killed during an operation on a submarine in Cape Town on Wednesday.

Malouw and two of her crew members lost their lives at sea after their vessel was hit by high waves in Kommetjie, Cape Town. She was among seven people aboard the SA Navy submarine SAS Manthatisi, which was en route to Cape Town. The accident happened while an SA Air Force Maritime Lynx helicopter was performing a “vertrep” (vertical replenishment) of supplies to the SAS Manthatisi submarine off the coast of Cape Town. 

“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 SA National Defence Force (SANDF) said in a statement.

Four officers were saved but Malouw, Master Warrant Officer William Masela Mathipa and Warrant Officer Mmokwapa Lucas Mojela did not make it. President Cyril Ramaphosa said the disaster is “a sad loss for our nation”. Officials have set up an inquiry into the incident.

32-year-old Malouw joined the Navy in 2010 and qualified as a combat officer in 2018 before becoming a navigator the following year. Her interest in the maritime industry was developed at a young age when she enrolled in the SA Sea Cadets as a teen.

“From a societal point of view, anything in the armed forces is generally viewed as a career for men. That’s the first barrier that you need to get over,” she said in an interview with Cape Talk in 2020 after making history as a woman navigating a submarine.

People tried to discourage her on her journey to make history but she never gave up. “They’d say, ‘Oh, we’re not sure about you’, because of my small frame or simply because they overlooked my abilities. But I never let it get to me,” she told News24.

“For the first time in the history of our submarine service, we have a female in a leadership position. It shows we’re moving in the right direction,” she said.

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor is a writer and content creator. She loves writing about health and women's issues in Africa and the African diaspora.

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