South African women push for top spots in mining

South African women push for top spots in mining

Smangele Mngomezulu worked for 15 years at South African mining giant Anglo American, but apartheid-era laws banned her from donning a hard hat and shoveling ore.

Now, over a decade after the collapse of race laws, she heads down into sweltering underground mines as the owner of her own company, with Anglo as one of her customers.

Women like Mngomezulu are still rare, despite the scrapping of apartheid-era laws prohibiting women from working in mines and government demands that firms change.

Women still only make up a fraction of the mining workforce and only a handful have made it into top positions in South Africa, the world’s biggest producer of gold and platinum.

“For heaven’s sake, this is totally unacceptable,” said Bridgette Radebe, who heads both her own junior mining firm as well as an organization representing small mining companies.

“The opportunities are there but women are not given the opportunities because there’s a lot of resistance.”

South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution enshrines the doctrine of equality of the sexes and President Thabo Mbeki pays more than lip service to this — his cabinet of 30 includes 12 women.

But some attitudes still linger from the apartheid era, when black women suffered a double handicap — restricted by both their gender and race.

Women face a multitude of obstacles in the mining sector, ranging from resistance from male workers to their own perceptions about mining.

But they could benefit from the country’s mining charter, which seeks to give more ownership to the black majority under the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) plan.

Employment of women has crept higher as mining companies scramble to meet the government requirement to have 10 percent of jobs filled by women by 2009.

Under the charter, firms run the risk of losing their licenses if they fail to comply with a set of targets, which also include boosting ownership by blacks.


The early mining industry was built on back-breaking labor by poorly paid black men, who were prohibited from rising to skilled and professional posts. A smattering of women were relegated to low-level posts like clerks.

When Mngomezulu, now general secretary of the South African Women in Mining Association, worked in the library of Anglo American during the apartheid era, she never thought of heading into the mines.

“At the time, I never dreamt it would ever happen, that black people would actually have businesses at the mine,” she said. “As a woman in those days, I could never ever think of being involved in mining.”

Now, she sometimes struggles to convince women that the mining sector, one of the nation’s biggest employers, offers opportunities for them.

“In our culture, a person who was working at the mines was a person who was not educated. Our mothers warned us if you don’t want to go to school, you’ll end up in the mines.”

Mngomezulu’s small business — Nesa Mining — employs 10 women, who use vacuum-type machines to sweep up metal-bearing material left behind in old mining areas.

Women miners sometimes face a less than welcoming reception from men.

“Some of the guys really give them hell, they weren’t too happy about it,” Harmony Gold official Philip Kotze said during a mine visit last year.

“But I think the women are great, they’re more organized than us and more disciplined. They don’t go out drinking on Friday.”


Government statistics show women made up 3.5 percent of a total mining workforce of 443,300 last year, compared to 2.1 percent in 1994, when Nelson Mandela swept into power as president in the first all-race elections.

Some companies are moving faster than others. Harmony Chief Executive Bernard Swanepoel said recently that his firm, the world’s fifth biggest gold producer, had boosted numbers of women to about 8 percent of the workforce.

Some 35 percent of Harmony’s senior management are blacks, women or others oppressed under apartheid, and its financial director is a black woman, Nomfundo Qangule.

Radebe, who heads coal and platinum firm Mmakau Mining, says women should agitate to move into mining companies’ boardrooms, or should start their own firms.

At a recent conference, she cited a 2004 survey that showed four black women were non-executive board members of mining firms while about a third of women in the sector worked as clerks.

“If you look at the cabinet, how many women are in cabinet, and you look at our boards and it’s nil, there is no single woman that’s an executive director, and that has to stop,” she said.

“The men are the ones that are running these boards, the men are the ones that own these companies, maybe if we start owning them, things would start to change,” Radebe said.

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