Mystery lingers over the death of Transnet pilot boat trainee

Thandeka Mzimela fell off a ladder and drowned in Durban’s sea two years ago. But the company allegedly failed to provide her grieving husband with her cause of death report despite his repeated requests for information.

Khulekani Mzimela, 42, a chief engineer at Transnet National Ports Authority (Transnet NPA) at Durban harbour is constantly reminded of his wife’s death. The parastatal has allegedly kept the details of Thandeka Nyandeni Mzimela’s death a secret by failing to provide her husband with the information he allegedly requested.

For the past two years, Mzimela’s life has been emotionally taxing. He needs closure and wonders why Transnet NPA refuses to divulge the cause of his wife’s death. In November 2017, 33-year-old Thandeka, a Transnet pilot boat trainee, was reported to have tried to climb onto an incoming vessel. While she was halfway up the ladder, she signalled for help by waving her hand. She apparently lost her grip on the ladder, fell into the sea and drowned.

“My life will never be the same. It is like I am a stranded person in this world, but I am trying to be strong,” said Mzimela.

Undated: Thandeka Mzimela and her husband Khulekani Mzimela, in a family photo. (Photograph courtesy of the Mzimela family)

Lack of safety standards alleged

Mzimela said that after Thandeka was retrieved from the water, they did not call him, even though the company knew they were married. He saw his wife’s body only a day later, at the mortuary. Transnet NPA allegedly launched an investigation into Thandeka’s death.

To date, the company has failed to update Mzimela on the cause of his wife’s death despite his repeated requests for information “After the collection of the information, they said I will be called to come to listen to what transpired,’’ said Mzimela. He claimed that the port manager failed to let him see the report. 

Mzimela told New Frame that the port manager at the time, Moshe Motlohi, who is now the General Manager of Corporate Affairs and External Relations, said he would liaise with the head office about the report. Mzimela was advised that the chief executive of Transnet NPA at the time apparently said that Mzimela needed to compile a list of questions he needed clarity on, and that someone would be delegated to answer those questions. This never happened.

In an email on 3 July 2019 Motlohi told New Frame, “The investigation report is an internal document and is private and confidential.”

He added, “Transnet is prohibited from engaging with an external party on employee issues. It will be a breach of the employment contract, policies and legislation to divulge private and personal information without the consent of the affected employee.”

Mzimela is convinced that his wife’s death forced Transnet NPA to look into its safety standards. “They were very much relaxed up until my wife died,” Mzimela claimed. “Perhaps in the report, they realised that they were not doing the training properly.”

Mzimela’s suspicion may be valid. New Frame found that the School of Ports, where marine pilots are trained, has only recently implemented ladder safety on vessels. 

What killed Thandeka?

Although Transnet NPA refuses to release the report into the death, a reliable source with an intimate knowledge of the incident spoke to New Frame on condition of anonymity. The source said: “We reported ‘man overboard’, and the ship managed to stop before the propellers could injure her.”

Attempts were made to save Thandeka by throwing a lifebuoy, which she grabbed. As she was being brought closer to the boat, she was already visibly tired. A Jason cradle (a maritime rescue device for unconscious persons) was used to pull her to the surface. But a chain connected to the Jason cradle apparently broke. Thandeka slipped off, fell back into the sea and drowned.

“I saw that it’s over now. She kept quiet and floated on the water. She hit the front of the pilot boat’s fenders. I suspect those fenders are the ones that killed her as she hit them while underneath [the water],” the source explained.

Mzimela’s wife had been working for Transnet NPA for 11 years and was previously a tug master. On 5 November 2017, the Sunday Independent reported that Motlohi said Thandeka was the first person to have died as a marine pilot in over three decades. “The safety of our employees and working environment remains our first concern and we are extremely distressed that this has occurred,” Motlohi told the paper.

6 June 2019: Khulekani Mzimela, a chief engineer, works on tugboats such as this one at the Durban Harbour.

Regrets and no resolution

Mzimela’s life hasn’t been easy since his wife’s death. “To get injured while on duty, surely a big company like Transnet should have been more responsible. At the end of the day, the company was dishonest and not transparent with me,” he said. “My mind asks, how did you get injured? I wanted closure, so that my mind can clear up and let go.”

Thandeka left Mzimela with two children, now aged seven and 11. He has to look after the children before they go to school. “If it were up to me, I should have stopped working now so that I can focus on the kids,” he said.

“Life is very tough now. It is very tough to get another person to take up her role in raising the children,” Mzimela explains. “There are things that I struggle to do as a father, which requires the presence of a mother.”

Mzimela says at one point his wife asked for his advice on whether to continue training as a marine pilot. Mzimela says he did not want to sound too limiting or controlling. “I said to her that you are the one who feels everything. You’re the one who feel the pressure. Make a right decision for you,” he recalled.

He regrets his advice now. “I wish I told her to leave it. Maybe she wouldn’t have died.”

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