Durban’s first black female deputy harbour master talks about her job

18 May 2016

Pinky Zungu would not have minded working as a pilot on a ship until the day she retired. But she was given what she describes as a more exhilarating position at Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA): Zungu is the first black female to be appointed the deputy harbour master: nautical at the Port of Durban.

Her new position requires more managerial functions than operational, according to Zungu, who comes from Lamontville, in eThekwini. She enjoys it, though. “It has been exciting. This is not a foreign industry for me. I know the gaps exist and I am open to learning even more.

“The benchmark has already been set and it is now up to me to perform accordingly.”

Her highlight is teaching what she has learned over the years. “My in-depth knowledge of piloting gives me the chance to motivate and encourage the up-and- coming junior licence pilots.”

Zungu took up her new position on 1 May 2016.

The beginning

She first made her name as one of three women in Africa to obtain a marine pilot open licence in 2011. A week after that, Zungu, now 33, made news headlines again when she piloted the MSC Chicago, at the time the largest container vessel to visit South Africa’s shores.

This was just after the entrance channel at Durban harbour was widened to make way for a new generation of container ships. She has since had seven years’ experience of guiding vessels of any size up to super tankers and mega container vessels into the Port of Durban, putting her in an ideal position for her new role, according to TNPA’s press statement.

In 2011, Zungu was selected by TNPA as a development candidate and is said to be one of the women who are changing the face of the male-dominated maritime industry.

In an interview with the South African Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa), she said that before she started studying at the Durban University of Technology, she had never seen a ship. “So everything was new to me. Progression from studying to becoming a pilot has been a long journey, but one that I have enjoyed.

“I went to sea, became a tank master. I enjoyed that a lot – driving the tank. Then I started studying piloting and I got my open licence in August 2011. I love piloting more than anything!”

When she was chosen as a Samsa Seafarer of the Year (shore-based category) in 2011, she said she would pilot ships till the age of 65. She shared the seafarer award with two other women – Precious Dube and Bongiwe Mbambo.

Male dominated industry

One of the challenges has been to be in command of men. “You have to be firm,” is one of the lessons she has learned. “You have to be firm, because you are working with captains who are old and grey. (Some) are not used to you being a female. So you have to assure them: ‘I’m well-trained and I know exactly what I am doing.'”

Watch Zungu talk about other challenges she has tackled:

She studied maritime to travel

Growing up on the outskirts of Durban, Zungu had dreams of becoming an airline pilot but her parents could not afford the training. Instead she did a two-year course in maritime studies because it would give her the opportunity to work on ships and travel the world for free. “I didn’t realise that this came at a price,” she explains.

“While I got to see most of Europe and West Africa during my cadetship with (shipping company) Unicorn, I spent the first eight months on a bulk carrier as the only woman in a crew of 28 Russian men. The only person who could speak a little bit of English was the captain.

“It’s a tough environment for women. On board you have to have the physical and mental strength to perform the role. Only when you’re on land can you put on your skirt and heels and be a lady again.”

After her cadetship Zungu completed a compulsory oral examination with Samsa to obtain a Class 3 ticket to be a junior deck officer responsible for auto piloting vessels and managing safety equipment.

She then trained and worked as a tug master at TNPA manoeuvring ships in and out of the port with the aid of small tugboats. Following that, she completed a year-long pilot training programme to qualify as a junior pilot before progressing through the various licence grades, starting with smaller ships of about 16 000 gross tons, then 20 000, 25 000 and 35 000 before qualifying for her open licence.

As deputy harbour master: nautical, one of Zungu’s key responsibilities is managing the marine pilots under her wing. These include a number of young black women, as TNPA’s efforts to provide opportunities for the historically disadvantaged, including women, continue to gain traction.

“Being a marine pilot is a huge responsibility. You have to study the sounding charts daily and have an accurate mental picture of the seabed. You have to know what’s underneath you, including port depths, as the equipment on board the visiting ships doesn’t always work,” she explains.

The mother of three says she has achieved her career success with the support of her husband, Sphiwe, a senior lifeguard at eThekwini Municipality. Like her, he grew up in Lamontville.