Commander Matsane is piped aboard
the SAS Queen Modjadji.
(Images: Dean Wingrin)
The SAS Charlotte Maxeke was Matsane’s
(Image: South African Navy)
• Captain Jaco Theunissen
SAN public relations
+27 12 339 4349
South Africa recently celebrated the appointment of its first black submarine commander, Handsome Thamsanqa Matsane, who took the helm of the SAS Queen Modjadji just before the end of April.
The South African Navy (SAN) has just three submarines to its name, which makes the commander’s achievement all the more note-worthy. The ceremony took place at the Simon’s Town naval base on the Cape peninsula.
Matsane (34) joined the SAN in 1998 and shone at the Saldanha Military Academy on the country’s west coast, graduating as the best mathematics student. With a BA in military science in hand, he served as a combat officer on the fleet support ship SAS Drakensberg and the Valour-class frigates SAS Isandlwana and SAS Spioenkop.
Navy life above the waves was abandoned when he joined the submarine squadron in 2007 and rose rapidly through the ranks, overcoming the many challenges faced by submariners and taking up the position of executive officer aboard the submarine SAS Charlotte Maxeke.
South African heroines, past and present
With the SAS Queen Modjadji and the SAS Manthatisi, this vessel is the third of SAN’s Heroine class of submarines.
All Type 209/1400 vessels, developed by German ship builders Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft, the three commemorate a trio of remarkable South African women.
The SAS Queen Modjadji was named after South Africa’s rain queen, who lived in Limpopo province and was believed to have special powers including the ability to control the clouds and rainfall.
The SAS Manthatisi is named after the female warrior chief of the Batlokwa tribe of the North West province, who reigned, according to documentation, in the 1820s. She reportedly led an army of more than 50 000 troops during territorial wars.
Charlotte Maxeke, who gave her name to the third submarine, was a political activist and founding member of the African National Congress Women’s League.
Matsane grew up in Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga province – far from the sea – and named his grandmother, the venerable Betty Mashabane, as his personal heroine and inspiration.
“Although she doesn’t have an education, she would always tell us that ‘education will help you get through’, even in the hard times,” said Matsane.
He’s encouraging youngsters who aspire to a naval career to focus on maths and science at school, because many of the top jobs are technical in nature, especially on submarines.
Matsane also wants more women to join the navy.
“We have women still in training but in total there are only some 15 women in the submarine squadron. We need lots more South Africans, both men and women, to join up.”
Not one to shy away from a challenge, Matsane completed the transatlantic Cape to Rio yacht race in 2003 after setting foot for the first time on a sailing ship just six weeks before.
His performance was good enough to catch the eye of the Chilean navy, and he was invited to serve for four months aboard the controversial tall ship BE Esmeralda, a training vessel for junior officers, on her journey around the world.
Ninety years of the South African Navy
The navy had another reason to celebrate in April, and that is because it turned 90 at the beginning of the month.
The national military body was officially established on 1 April 1922 with three ships in its fleet – the Hunt-class hydrographic survey ship HMS Crozier and the two Mersey-class minesweeping trawlers HMS Eden and HMS Foyle were loaned to South Africa by the Royal Navy.
The three vessels were returned to the Royal Navy in the 1930s and reverted to their original names, but were later renamed to HMSAS Protea, HMSAS Immortelle and HMSAS Sonneblom to commemorate their service in South African waters.
Unofficially, the SAN began to take shape in the 19th century when the Port Elizabeth Naval Volunteer Brigade came into being in 1861, but it was only in 1885 that a more enduring volunteer unit, the Natal Naval Volunteers, was formed in Durban.
The unit served in the South African War of 1899 to 1902, and in the Zulu Rebellion of 1906. It later became the reserve unit SAS Inkonkoni, which merged in 1913 with the Cape Naval Volunteers, known later as the SAS Unitie. The two units together formed the South African division of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.
In 1946 the fledgling navy, known as the South African Naval Forces, was absorbed into the Union Defence Force. The Union of South Africa was the forerunner to the present-day Republic of South Africa.
In 1951 the South African Naval Forces officially became the South African Navy, which meant that ships were renamed from the title of HMSAS – His Majesty’s South African Ship – to simply SAS, or South African Ship.
In April 1994, the year that democracy arrived in South Africa, the SAN and the other branches of the South African Defence Force – the army, the air force and the medical corps – became the South African National Defence Force.