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Picture: THE HERALD/MIKE HOLMES
Picture: THE HERALD/MIKE HOLMES

A little after 4am on February 18 1982, the frigate SAS President Kruger, the flagship of the SA Navy, was rammed by its own replenishment vessel, the navy tanker SAS Tafelberg, after a change-of-course manoeuvre went disastrously wrong in heaving seas.

The tanker hit the frigate amidships, tore a hole in its side and killed 16 sailors, most of whom had been asleep in the petty officers’ mess when the collision happened.

The sinking sent shockwaves through the navy and the country. How could this have happened, people wondered.

There was also a profound degree of embarrassment in naval circles. Losing a flagship to enemy action was bad enough, but getting rammed and sunk by one of the fleet’s own vessels was unthinkable.

As it turned out, the accident was a classic case of one officer, who was not on the bridge, countermanding the order issued by the officer of the watch, who was.

Friday marks the 40th anniversary of the disaster.

No official remembrances are planned to mark the day. The navy, and the government, have moved on.

That’s too bad, because the events of that night might offer a useful parable to those at the helm of the good ship SA.

It is a dark and stormy night and a big swell (the restive population) is running. Unemployment is at 46.6% (the expanded rate; 34.9% is the official one), the pandemic lingers even as the vaccination drive totters, the basic income grant looks all but dead in the water, and the helmsman of our leaky flagship appears to be asleep at the wheel.

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