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A Personal Perspective On Being A Woman In The Maritime Sector

9 August 2016
– 9 Minute Read


I come from very humble working class beginnings. My mom worked in an appliance factory and my father was a salary clerk. I attended government schools in rural areas and furthering my education beyond matric was not a certainty. It was my father who decided, on the day that my matric results were released, that I was going to study further. I was the first person in my extended family to attend university.

I enrolled at the-then University of Natal in January 1994 for a Bachelor of Arts degree, to be followed by a Bachelor of Laws degree. It was not an easy five years. While I absolutely thrived in the academic environment, there was always unease at the back of my mind that my education was costing my parents a fortune. I think that unease gave me greater emphasis to give off my best. If I did not get a first in a test or exam, then I was deeply disappointed with myself.

At the end of my BA degree, I was approached to study English honours. While there was a strong pull in that direction from my love of literature and the arts, the more practical side of me decided that I needed to follow a course that would enable me to obtain employment after graduating. I then proceeded to complete my LLB degree.

In my final year, I started the arduous process of sending out applications for articles all over the country. I think I sent out about 50 in total. There was no way I could not have a job after studying for all those years. I was fortunate to be granted quite a few interviews and I eventually accepted articles at a large practice in Durban.

My first year was a whirlwind of collections matters, local government and general litigation and family law (which I did not enjoy). It came as quite a relief at the end of my first year, to be offered the opportunity to transfer to the shipping department. This came as a surprise because it was usually a male clerk that was selected to go to this department. I was really excited at the opportunity and decided to grab it with both hands.

I clearly remember my first week. I attend an urgent ship arrest after hours and went on board a container vessel in dry dock to take statements following an incident in the harbour. Lesson learned: it is not a good idea to go on board a vessel in a long skirt and high heels and especially not in dry dock where the gang plank is extremely far off the ground! I was absolutely exhilarated. Was this actually work? It felt more like an adventure!

I fell in love with this new dynamic area of law and I have not looked back. However I soon realised that I needed to extend my education into maritime law.

Whilst I learned many of the practical aspects from my senior colleagues, I also extended my theoretical knowledge by completing the Understanding Shipping course through the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers and then followed up with a master’s degree in maritime law at the University of Natal. This was done through coursework over four semesters. Studying a master’s degree part time is not for the faint-hearted but it was the best thing I could have done. At one stage, we had the Judge President of the Durban High Court and several counsel on the course. Without even realising it, I was slowly building contacts within the industry.

Simultaneously, I was encouraged to join the Durban Chapter of the Maritime Law Association – I enjoyed the committee work and being involved in an organisation so focused on developments in maritime the law led to a huge growth in my confidence and knowledge, as well as further building up my circle of contacts. I eventually became part of the executive committee of the Maritime Law Association and took over as national secretary in 2007. I held the position for seven years.

Throughout my time on the MLA, I felt mentored, as most of my colleagues on the executive committee were partners of other law firms. One of my portfolios on the MLA was the empowerment committee and we set up an exchange programme with Holland & Knight, a law firm based in New York where previously disadvantaged young women were sent on an exchange programme for six months at a time. I am proud to say that I am still in contact with several of those women, most of whom have stayed in the maritime field and excelled. Our last candidate is now working at a global law firm and is based in London.

I also served on the executive committee of WISTA which stands for Women in Shipping and Trade Association. WISTA is an international organisation and during my time on the committee, we mentored at least two young women into their careers in the maritime industry.

What was clearly obvious in my early years in the industry, was a dire need for transformation, both across gender and colour lines. I was often the only woman and more often than not, the only person of colour on committees. Whilst in those days, the opportunities in particular for women of colour were limited, I would like to think that times have now changed.

To pursue a career in maritime law, the right education is vital. In this regard there are many different courses on offer in South Africa.

The Cape Peninsula University of Technology offers a National Diploma in Maritime Studies consisting of qualifications in Marine Navigation, Marine Engineering and Offshore Survival. In addition, the Durban University of Technology offers courses in Maritime Studies and Marine Engineering. The University of Cape Town, apart from offering a Masters in Maritime Law programme, also offers degrees in Marine and Environmental Law and Marine Research.

Similarly, the University of Kwazulu Natal has focused on post-graduate diplomas in Maritime Law, Transport and Studies as well as master’s programmes in Marine and Ship Surveying, Maritime Law and Maritime Economics. UNISA also offers a national diploma in Transport Economics.

In an exciting development, the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University is in the process of acquiring a new campus for maritime studies, which will be the country’s first dedicated maritime studies centre.

In terms of high school education, both Simons Town High School and Lawhill Academy in the Cape, and Sethengile High School in KZN, have dedicated maritime studies programmes.

The Lawhill Academy provides 15 to 18 year-old students with maritime-related knowledge and skills while they are still at school, increasing their prospects for post-school employment or admission to maritime-related courses at tertiary institutions. I am proud to say that our Bowman Gilfillan Africa Group colleagues in the Cape Town office have been very involved in Lawhill and have delivered lectures to the students.

In addition, the South African Coast Guard Training Institute and Academy of Maritime Medicine provides maritime safety training.

The South African Maritime Training Academy is Africa’s first maritime simulation training academy. Training is offered to the merchant marine, military, fishing and harbour craft industries. They also have a cadet training programme and provide maritime safety training.

The South African Maritime School and Transport College offers learnerships and skills programs, certificates and diplomas in international trade, specialising in the shipping practice, ports and distribution, customs clearing and forwarding.

The National Cadet Programme (NCP) offers practical training and training berths enabling students to get Standards of Training, Certification and Watch-Keeping (STCW) qualifications, which are internationally recognised. The cadet programme has successfully added more than 115 seafaring officers to the maritime skills base. Trainees conduct their training around the country. Pre-sea practical training is completed at the Grindrod training centre in Durban, and is managed by the South African Maritime Training Academy (SAMTRA) in Simon’s Town.

Sisters of the Sea is an initiative run by SAMSA to promote the safety of female cadets on board ships, whereby all maritime cadets are required to undergo counselling and complete life skills workshops before going on board. Female cadets are never placed on board alone, but in pairs.

The Transnet Maritime School of Excellence was established to provide the necessary skills for Transnet Port Terminals (TPT) and Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA), within the Transnet Academy. Located in Durban with satellite campuses in Richards Bay, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, it is the leading provider of high-end training in the Port and Maritime sector. Training is offered by experienced and qualified facilitators in Marine and Terminal Operations, Port Management and Port Engineering.

Unicorn Shipping also offers an offers a variety of short courses such as first aid at sea, competence in survival craft, personal safety and social responsibilities, aux staff/tanker familiarisation, security courses, proficiency in fast rescue raft, specialised tanker safety courses, marine fire-fighting /advanced fire-fighting and STCW-2010 basic training and refresher courses.

Overarching all of these initiatives is the Transport Education and Training Authority, which ensures the development and implementation of Learnerships, skills programmes, qualifications and other transport related training interventions throughout the industry.

In conclusion, it is important to bear in mind that whatever path you choose, there will always be difficulties. I am a wife and mother of two and these are also roles that are important to me. However, it does not mean that I cannot be a good lawyer, it just means that I have to be an accomplished juggler! It takes a multitude of skills to fulfil a role, whether as a maritime lawyer or on board a ship, and a further set of skills to fully embrace the lifestyle. These skills are not the exclusive preserve of men but it does take a certain type of person to succeed in that environment. Those that succeed are given confidence by their peers and mentors. We need to pay it forward by encouraging and supporting the next generation of women in the maritime industry, especially the next generation of female mariners. A woman’s place can be in the boardroom, on the bridge, deck or engine room of a super tanker, in fact, any place she wants to be.

Article by Anisa Govender, senior associate in our Shipping Practice.