South African harbour chief makes world history

Ray Maota

Rufus Lekala has made maritime history
by becoming the first black chief harbour
master in South Africa and the youngest
in the world.

Precious Dube and Pinky Zungu are two
of the three marine pilots who recently
received their open licences. They, along
with Bongiwe Mbambo, became the first
black women marine pilots to receive
open licences.
(Images: Transnet National Ports Authority)

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From taxi driver to South African and world maritime history-maker – this is how Captain Rufus Lekala’s life story would read if it were written today.

Appointed as the first black harbour master in South Africa and the youngest in the world in 2002, Lekala has now made maritime history again after becoming the first black chief harbour master in the country and the youngest in the world to hold such a position.

The 41-year-old father of two took up the position on 1 June 2011.

A chief harbour master is responsible for strategising maritime projects and dealing with policy-making.

Lekala is also responsible for cohesion between the Department of Transport, Transnet, the International Maritime Association and the International Lighthouse Association.

From landlubber to sea master

Lekala matriculated at Vlakfontein High School in Mamelodi, Pretoria, in 1990, and hoped to study further, but could not afford it.

“After matric I had no money to study, so I drove taxis for five years in Pretoria. It wasn’t for me,” said Lekala.

While driving taxis, he earned an average of R1 000 (US$139) a month.

Lekala’s big break came in 1996 when he heard that Portnet was offering bursaries for studies in the maritime sector.

“I applied, not expecting a landlubber like me to be selected. I knew nothing about the sea. It wasn’t part of my culture, but I was desperate and when you want to make something of yourself, you’ll take any opportunity that arrives,” he said.

Getting the bursary enabled Lekala to do maritime studies at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and, after completing the course in 1998, he began climbing the ladder.

He started by doing in-service training and then became a tugmaster, manoeuvring vessels in and out of port. His next appointment was as marine pilot.

Stationed at the East London port in 2002, he became the youngest harbour master in the world and the first black one. This harbour has about 35 vessels going through it a month. He was then transferred to Cape Town, which handles over 300 vessels.

Lekala progressed to running the 500-vessel-a-month port of Durban, the second largest in Africa after Port Said in Egypt.

“You need people skills in this work as you’re at the front line of the company and you need to be analytical. Most of my job is dealing with other people’s problems and I must remain neutral, not taking sides,” he said.

Lekala is now responsible for 12 people: eight harbour masters, three operations managers and a personal assistant.

He lives by the philosophy that “nothing is impossible in life”, and believes a person should lead by consensus.

Lekala the family man

In 2002 Lekala married Mathilda Mopayi, a marine pilot who also works for Transnet.

The avid reader of publications such as The Economist and Time magazine says his biggest personal achievement was receiving the National Diploma in Maritime Studies in 1998.

Lekala says his late sister Dorothy Phetla, businessman Richard Maponya and Transnet mentor, Captain Edward Bremner are his biggest influences, professionally and personally.

Lekala is the vice-president of the International Harbour Masters Association and an honorary member of the Natal, Point and Bluff yacht clubs.