Like many youngsters Akhona Geveza had her own Facebook site but unlike many youngsters she was a seafarer so the opportunity to update her page came few and far between. Her suicide at the age of 19, two weeks before completing the training that would begin her career as a navigating officer, means that her page will fall silent, but silence is not an option for those seeking justice for this young woman.
On 25 January, in Facebookese Akhona Geveza wrote: “Ey gudpeople 2day is my last day in South Africa *crying* sometymz in lyf have to choose btwn the ones we love and education.anyway i love you all guys i wll miss u you all.” In March she made her last entry: “enjoying my time in Korea,missing u all”
A South African National Ports Authority, Transnet, cadet doing her onboard training on the container ship, Safmarine Kariba – was found to be missing around noon on 24 June. After a two hour search, her body was found at sea by local police near the port of Rijeka, Croatia where the vessel was due to berth.
A memorial service was held onboard the Safmarine Kariba on Friday, 25 June 2010. The vessel’s engine was stopped soon after the vessel had left the port of Rijeka at the location where Ms Geveza was found. The crew gathered on the bridge wing, the ship’s horn was blown and a minute of silence was observed as the crew lowered a floral wreath into the sea in remembrance of Ms Geveza.
South African newspapers subsequently reported claims that she had told a colleague she had been raped by the ship’s Ukrainian chief officer. Other Transnet cadets were quoted making allegations of male and female rape, pregnancy and bullying and harassment.
Says Safmarine: “As soon as we became aware of the allegations regarding Ms Geveza, Safmarine instructed that the Chief Officer onboard the vessel be relieved from duty…
Safmarine is not the only provider of training berths to South Africans and we are therefore most concerned that the Sunday Times article may erroneously leave the impression that all the sexual allegations mentioned in the article took place on Safmarine vessels. That is not the case.”
Among the allegations made by South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper are:
“Several cadets in the maritime studies programme, speaking to the Sunday Times on condition of anonymity, said there was systematic abuse of power by senior officers, who threatened cadets’ careers if they did not perform sexual acts. The sex abuse allegations include claims that :
- Two male cadets were raped by senior officials while at sea;
- A female cadet terminated two pregnancies that followed her rape at sea;
- Three female trainees were pregnant at the end of their 12-month training stint;
- A male cadet was sent home a month before finishing his programme because he refused to have sex with a senior official; and
- A female cadet has a child with a married South African Maritime Safety Agency executive after he forced himself on her and threatened to cancel her contract if she told anyone.
Said a former female cadet: "When we arrived on the vessel, there were 10 women, and we were told that the captain is our god; he can marry you, baptise you and even bury you without anybody’s permission. We were told that the sea is no man’s land and that what happens at sea, stays at sea."
Said another former female cadet: "It was like we were dumped in the middle of a game park."
The former male cadet who was allegedly raped said: "I really don’t want to talk about it. Bad things are happening at sea and I am one of the victims."
As an African woman in a male-dominated industry was, in a sense, a pioneer. Over the past two years 15 women have graduated from the Transnet programme, 14 of whom are still at sea.
Says a contributor to a Facebook memorial page: page W’l 4ever b proud of u sisi, u broke da boundaries. showing dat even f u’r a village gel, da sky s da limit. u r da inspiration”.
Safmarine Kariba was a UK-registered vessel and Nautilus International has called for the UK government to ensure there is a full and transparent inquiry into Akhona’s death and the subsequent allegations of rape and harassment.
General secretary Mark Dickinson says the case should serve as ‘a wake-up call’ to the international shipping industry. ‘The reports are deeply shocking and extremely serious and it is imperative that every effort is made to investigate and learn from this as a matter of urgency,’ he adds.
‘It is essential for the shipping industry and for the UK register that no effort is spared to establish the truth of the allegations and – if true – to ensure that appropriate action is taken,’ Mr Dickinson states.
‘The claims being made run the risk of putting the issue of equal opportunities back decades,’ he warns. ‘It is therefore critical that there must be no whitewash and no cover-up and that the authorities and the owners respond in a constructive and engaged way.’
Mr Dickinson says research by Nautilus a decade ago shows serious problems of sexual harassment in shipping. As a result, the union developed equal opportunities policies with the UK Chamber of Shipping and these had subsequently been taken up across the European Union.
The union is also writing to the UK transport minister and home secretary to highlight the need for Britain to play a leading role in the criminal and accident investigations. Nautilus is reviewing its existing arrangements for enabling members to report problems onboard their ships, and has also approached the Chamber of Shipping to discuss ways in which the industry can reassess its equal opportunities policies and to ensure that lessons are learned from the case of Akhona Geveza.
‘We are determined that this incident is not swept under the carpet and that some good can come from this tragic loss of life,’ Mr Dickinson says.
‘We have a 30% wastage rate among young people entering the industry, and we really need to make very sure that bullying, harassment and discrimination are not tolerated in shipping and that all seafarers, regardless of sex, sexual orientation and race, are not treated in ways that were not even acceptable 100 years ago.’
Transnet has established an independent bard of inquiry and the South African police are also investigating.
As yet, there is no news of an investigation by the UK authorities.
A vibrant 19 year-old is dead, the tip of a particularly nasty iceberg. The industry has a duty of care towards these youngsters and it’s time to take that duty seriously.