First black frigate captain takes command
South Africa’s four frigates got their first black captain on Thursday when former Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) operative Bravo Mhlana formally assumed command of the SAS Isandlwana.
He was handed a brass “telescope of command” at a blustery quayside ceremony attended by President Thabo Mbeki’s wife, Zanele, and navy top brass in the Simon’s Town navy docks.
“It’s a challenging environment, but as challenging as it is, I think I’m prepared and ready to play this role,” Mhlana said after the ceremony.
He took over from Captain Karl Wiesner, who has completed a five-year tour of duty on the Isandlwana and is being redeployed to navy headquarters in Pretoria to work in the field of combat capability.
The 35-year-old Mhlana was born in Ngangelizwe township in Mthatha, and studied for a BComm degree after completing his matric.
However, he was also an underground MK operative, taking part in several operations in the Transkei and Natal, and also acted as an instructor at a secret MK camp in the Port St Johns area.
It was there, he said, that he developed a love of the sea, and when the guerrilla forces were integrated with the defence force after 1994, he chose the navy.
He has previously commanded the minesweeper SAS Kapa.
Mhlana said one of his challenges in his new role would be to ensure that officers from previously disadvantaged backgrounds took their rightful place in the navy.
He also said he looked forward to meeting the navy’s target for 30% representation for women on the Isandlwana, where the figure was currently only 18%.
“I’m grateful to be part of that process to make the change in South African history,” he said.
Also at the ceremony was his mother, Khutala, a receptionist with the East Cape Development Corporation in Mthatha, who said she was not merely pleased about her son’s appointment.
“I’m more than the word pleased; I’m even praising God about it,” she said.
She had thought Mhlana was going to become a chartered accountant. “But he left that, he joined this,” she said.
The Chief of the Navy, Vice-Admiral Johannes Mudimu, said the ceremony recognised not only the “awesome responsibilities of command”, but also the rebirth and re-emergence of a navy, which before 1994 had become aged and obsolete.
“If there’s something I give to the people of South Africa with pride and confidence, it’s this man to command this frigate,” he said of Mhlana.
Mudimu rejected suggestions that the navy was crippled by a lack of skilled personnel.
He said that although many navy trainees took their skills into the private sector after completing their training, he recognised that the country needed skilled people in the economy.
This was why the navy trained more people than it could accommodate itself.
“South Africa is very proud of the product they get from the navy,” he said.
At the handover ceremony, Wiesner—who Mudimu described as a “highly competent officer”—shook hands and exchanged a few words with every one of the 140-plus crew members drawn up on parade as he did his final inspection.
Mhlana, after receiving the telescope from Wiesner, recited the customary undertaking to perform his duties with diligence and zeal, then added: “I now formally take over command of this beautiful beast, SAS Isandlwana.”
Three of the frigates—which were termed corvettes when the arms deal was being concluded—have already been commissioned.
The fourth, the SAS Mendi, is to be handed over to the navy in a ceremony in Port Elizabeth on March 20.—Sapa.