Woman of the Week: All aboard with Thembela Taboshe

Thembela Taboshe, knot at all a conventional woman, has proven that sometimes your passion finds you, breaking down everything in its path.

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When we think of a strong and inspiring woman, we think of 33-year-old Captain Thembela Taboshe. Born in eNgqushwa, Taboshe has made a home in what she likes to call an “unconventional office”. 

When huge shipping vessels come to mind, and those on board working hard to earn a living, we often picture men, don’t we? Taboshe, currently based in Cape Town, has manned the ships and has thrown out all stereotypes, proving to young women everywhere that it’s not about your gender, it’s about your passion. 

Licenced to command a vessel of any size anywhere in the world, Taboshe has our attention. Ahoy Captain.

A TWIST OF BAIT FOR TABOSHE 

Taboshe, a Safety, Health and Environmental Executive at Blue Continent Products — a subsidiary of the Oceana Group — essentially looks after the fishers, the vessels and the broader environment. 

“My job titles have never really been what I do, they just give me the platform to do what I feel is necessary,” said Taboshe. 

When asked how she got into the shipping industry, Taboshe didn’t know where to begin. 

“I spent my Matric year blasé about a lot of things, and my dream was to be a choreographer. I’d only ever talked about being Michael or Janet Jackson’s choreographer and locally, I had my eyes set on being the next Somizi. But I was only 16 and my family refused, my Mom said I could do that as I study into something more structured and reliable,” she said. 

Taboshe, marching to her own drum, said she ignored the calls until her great grandmother asked to speak to her. 

“Fine. I’ll try. Only because you say so,” she told her great grandmother. Taboshe said she’s been “trying” ever since. When Taboshe’s Matric results docked, a family friend who was working at Transnet, suggested she pursue her studies in Marine Engineering. 

“She felt I fit the criteria and I agreed to apply only because I would be out there in an unconventional office. I applied and on late-registration day, the HoD at the time scratched out my engineering option and replaced it with Maritime Studies and next day I was getting my uniform, nautical stationery, heading to class and so my career began,” she said. 

“If you know me personally, you’d know I don’t just agree to do things without a fight but here I was being an obedient kid and that obedience led me to one of my lifelong passions — shipping,” she added. 

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Image: Supplied

BATTLESHIP 

After matriculating, Taboshe started her Maritime Studies Diploma at CPUT in Cape Town in 2004 and returned to varsity to complete her last semester at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) in 2011. 

“The academic programme is based on the technikon structure where experiential learning is required before graduating. I spent 10 years working and obtaining sea time to move through the ranks and eventually qualified for a Master Mariner’s Certificate of Competency after passing my oral exam in 2016,” she said. 

Taboshe is also the third of South Africa’s black women seafarers to obtain the Master Mariner qualification. As if that’s not impressive enough, Taboshe has also been pursuing studies in law and doing an LLB Degree with the intention to master in maritime law.

When asked what extra hurdles she’s had to overcome being in a male-dominated industry, Taboshe didn’t sugarcoat anything. 

“I’m a bubbly character, and when I got into the industry I realised just how emotionally restricting it was. I annoyed a couple of people because I always wanted to talk to people on board and know who [or] what they are when they’re not on the ship.

“It was blasphemous to speak of one’s emotions on board a ship and here I was, a person who believes that everything stems from within and feelings are a part of who we are,” she explained. 

Taboshe said there would be large-sized fire-fighting suits with Size 9 and above boots aboard the ship. She would, therefore, put in an order for ‘normal’ sizes but her orders were often cancelled due to there not being that “many women on board”. 

“So, if a fire broke out and I was there, I wouldn’t be fully kitted to help extinguish it. There are so many traditions people keep alive in the industry without reviewing just how gender bias they are, but because others work around them, some go into denial and believe that they aren’t as discriminative as they actually are,” she said frankly. 

Knot everything was a challenge, however. Taboshe said one of the highlights of her career was when Oceana employed its first female Navigating Officer on one of their ships. 

“I was bouncing around the offices with excitement. I don’t think my colleagues even realised how ground-breaking that was and a part of me was happy they didn’t because it reassured me that her gender had little or no role [in] determining her capability. She was capable and qualified and that was it,” she said. 

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Image: Supplied

LAST BUT NAUT LEAST 

Taboshe, a positive and down to earth soul, said she has the privilege of working within an organisation of men and women whose intention on seeking equality is clear and whose investment in the development of women is exemplary. 

“One that has created a safe space to address matters of diversity openly and giving equal and fair opportunity to all despite their gender. I think those are necessary ingredients to making work purposeful, exciting and productive, so if you’ve seen me dancing my way to work, now you know why,” she said playfully. 

When asked which women inspired her to be great, she said she could never choose one. 

“I was raised by my widowed Grandmother, born of a teenage Mother, groomed by an unmarried, disabled Great Grandmother, I have women in my family who vouch for me, I have friends who challenge me to be better, I have colleagues who continue to inspire me and strangers whose aspirations align with mine. All of which have knowingly [or] unknowingly supported, challenged and influenced who [and] what I am today,” she said. 

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Image: Supplied

For young women out there who are aspiring to break boundaries, Taboshe said; “It’s the set of the sails, not the direction of the wind that determines which way we go. Learn when to adjust your sails and when to follow the wind.”

For now, Taboshe’s juggling motherhood, work, life and enjoying her leadership journey with Oceana as one of the men and women forming part of the Oceana’s Leadership Programme through GIBS. What comes next for her, you ask? Well, she won’t give her plans away that easily. 

“They’re never really realistic so we’ll all see what happens next when it happens,” she said. 

Looking to track Taboshe’s inspiring journey? You can follow her on Instagram or on LinkedIn.  

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