In the South African village of Nxarhuni, Eastern Cape province, a freshly-dug grave marks the last resting place of Akhona Geveza, a 19-year old female officer cadet just short of qualifying as a navigation officer. Ordinarily such a grave would have passed unremarked but this is no ordinary grave, for it exposes a deep canker that infects and shames much of the world's mercantile marine. That shame is sexual abuse, often by officers, including female rape and sodomy. The lash may have gone but rum and sodomy remain deeply ingrained, to which must now be added the growing scourge of rape, despite the attempts by organizations like Nautilus International and ITF to eradicate the shame.
An only child and hope for her unemployed parents, Akhona Geveza was found dead on June 24 floating near the port of Rijeka, Croatia, after her ship's captain raised the alarm on board the British-registered container ship, Safmarine Kariba. Suicide is suspected but murder has not been ruled out by the South African police who are conducting their own enquiry.
The South African newpaper, The Sunday Times, reported that Akhona Geveza alleged being repeatedly raped by the ship's Ukranian chief officer but was reluctant at first to report the issue to the captain because, according to a fellow female confidant on board, she feared that she would not be believed. When she finally complained to the captain he immediately confronted the chief officer and convened a meeting with him and Geveza for 11 a.m. When she failed to arrive, a search was conducted, and following the discovery of pills and thinners in the foc'sle, the captain raised the alarm. Safmarine ordered the chief officer to be relieved of duty.
Akhona was one of over 100 young South African women to have gone through the Transnet National Ports Authority's maritime studies program as part of the campaign to encourage young women to become seafarers. In a sense, she was a pioneer in a male-dominated industry and her tragic and suspicious death risks setting back the issue of equal opportunities by decades, warns Mark Dickinson, general secretary of the maritime officers' union, Nautilus International.
Some 10 years ago Nautilus issued its own report, Fairplay, which showed serious problems of sexual harassment in shipping. Although only 35 questionnaires were returned, a response rate of 13% and therefore deemed not be be statistically significant, it nevertheless confirmed findings of other surveys and research that had been carried out by the ITF and the Seafarers International Research Centre at Cardiff University. The report revealed "alarming levels of sexual harassment," with over three quarters replying that they had suffered sexual harassment at sea. This included unwelcome physical contact, leering and rude gestures. Half of respondents said that the harassment affected their morale and 38% their health and safety.
As a result, the union developed equal opportunities policies with the UK Chamber of Shipping and these have been subsequently taken up across the European Union.
The 10-year old report, however, is revealing in that there was no mention of the most serious sexual offence of rape. Following the story of Akhona's death, other Transnet cadets have come forward alleging male and female rape, bullying and harassment. Speaking under conditions of anonymity, several cadets told South Africa's The Sunday Times that there was systematic abuse of power by senior officers who threatend 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. One female cadet terminated two pregnancies following alleged rape and three female cadet trainees were made pregnant by the end of their 12-month training stint. One male cadet was sent home a month before finishing his training program because he refused to have sex with a senior official.
This form of blackmail, i.e. the threat to cancel cadets' contracts, is probably what keeps many more cadets from coming forward to expose shipping's hidden vices. It is all part of the odious marine culture which says the captain is God, that the sea is no-man's land and that what happens at sea stays at sea.
Spurred by the failure of the industry to clean up its shameful act, Nautilus International is reviewing its existing arrangements for enabling members to report problems on board their ships and has approached the Chamber of Shipping to discuss ways in which the industry can reassess its equal opportunities policies and to ensure lessons are learned from the case of Akhona Geveza. "We have a 30% wastage rate among young people entering this industry," said Mark Dickinson, "and we really need to make it very sure that bullying and 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." Nautilus is also calling on the UK Transport Minister and Home Secretary to highlight the need for Britain to play a leading role in the criminal and accident investigations.
Akhona Geveza's tragic death marks the tip of a very ugly iceberg but if her case can galvanise the marine industry to clean out its Augean stables her death will not have been entirely in vain.