South African Navy at 75

By Lieutenant Commander Peter L. Goldman, MC, U.S. Naval Reserve (Retired)

By 1921, the South African government had decided to establish a seagoing permanent force, the South African Naval Service (SANS), citing Japanese naval expansion in the Pacific and the implied threat to the Union and the British Empire. In lieu of their annual remuneration to the Royal Navy, the Union agreed to expand the South African Division of the RNVR, assume responsibility for coastal hydrography and survey, construct two 12,000-ton oil storage tanks, and capitalize the development of the East Dockyard in Simonstown. The British subsequently supplied the South African Navy (SAN) with three surplus vessels. As a consequence of the Great Depression in 1934, however, the SAN was forced to return the Royal Navy's ships and reduce its personnel to two officers, and three ratings who alternated serving for six months on board the fishery research vessel Africana , conducting survey and for six months ashore establishing beacons, coastlining, and preparing charts.

Training and supply of the RNVR (SA) ashore, amply staffed by volunteers, were conducted by 5 officers, 12 ratings, and 10 civilians of the Royal Navy, while sea training became the responsibility of the Royal Navy's ships of the Africa Station. Following the declaration of war with Germany on 6 September 1939, the South African polity divided profoundly on the war issue. The government formed a new force, the Seaward Defense Force (SDF), rather than mobilizing the RNVR (SA). The SDF was constituted to operate under exclusive, indigenous control to maintain the Union's coastal defenses, to operate minesweepers, and to conduct antisubmarine operations. Ironically, issues of relative pay equity between the RNVR (SA) and the SDF ultimately resulted in their amalgamation on 1 August 1942 into the South African Naval Forces (SANF). On 9 October 1943 the South African Women's Auxiliary Naval Service (SWANS) was established "against formidable opposition" to assist in clerical duties and the defenses at Saldanha Bay's submarine-proof harbor. By war's end, the unified navy had 87 ships and 10,332 personnel, including 1,436 officers and 8,896 ratings. Eight hundred and thirty seamen, classified at the time as "Coloured," served with distinction in the South African Navy. In addition, more than 3,000 officers and ratings had been seconded to the Royal Navy. Following the cessation of hostilities, the SANF were reconstituted as part of the Permanent Force with authorization for 60 officers and 806 ratings. Currently, the total complement of the South African Navy Full-Time Force is 9,155 of which 3,436 (38%) are civilian and 5,719 (62%) are uniformed members.

The South African Navy is strongly committed to the implementation of optimal racial and gender representivity at all ranks, approximately proportional to population ratios, consistent with the maintenance of operational readiness and effectiveness. The recent White Paper on Transformation and the Defense Review confirmed that Coloured, Asian (Indian), and White representivity has already been achieved. (Coloureds first were permitted to join in 1963; Asians in 1974; and Africans only in 1990.) The SWANS were demobilized in 1949 but in 1973 women were allowed to join the navy, being recruited for most non-technical support and combat musterings ashore (radar and telecommunications). The first female officers graduated from the South African Naval College in 1976.

The Permanent Force's racial composition is now: African (16%), Coloured (31%), Asian (11%), and White (42%). Africans are represented in substantially higher percentages in both the Short Term Force System (39.6%) and the Medium Term System(31.8%)—clear indications of substantial progress.

Having celebrated its 75th anniversary, the South African Navy is justified in reflecting upon its legacy of professionalism and tenacity with pride. For three quarters of a century it has succeeded in overcoming a seemingly insurmountable plethora of adversities and stands ready to defeat the challenges of the coming millennium.

Commander Goldman lives in South Africa. Commander W.M. Bisset, Curator of the South African Naval Museum in Simonstown, and Commander S. Slogrove contributed to this piece.



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