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The mining industry is the backbone of South Africa’s economy, and the participation and inclusion of women in this industry remains relatively low. According to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, there are currently 21.05% women sitting on the boards of South Africa’s top 100 listed mining companies.

Today, we speak with mining engineer Nozipho Dlamini who has trail blazed her way to the top of the mining industry. Dlamini, is a mom, wife, and the incoming President of the South African Colliery Managers Association (SACMA) to name but a few of the many hats she wears.

Nozipho is currently the Technical Services Manager at Thungela’s Greenside Mine in Emalahleni, Mpumalanga. She talks to us about her rise in the industry, solving challenges that women go through in mining, and presenting herself fully in all the various hats she wears.

Here’s how our conversation went…

Q. Can you please share with us what a typical workday at the office looks like for you?

My day starts quite early because I commute between Gauteng and Mpumalanga daily. I normally leave home at 5:30 to be at the mine at 7AM. I use the first hour of the day to address all priorities and urgent work stemming from the previous shifts (because we are a 24-hour operation). Then the rest of the day is filled with meetings with my different section heads and our internal and external stakeholders.

Twice a week, I try to get out into the field for inspections and interactions with the operators and that allows us to discuss key issues that affect them. My day will also vary depending on what I work on, there are short term day by day tasks and long-term strategy activities.

Q. Take us back to the moment you realised that you belong in mining?

It was not instant, I wanted to study African literature and become an author. However, there were almost no bursaries for this field of study. I did well in Maths and Science, so I had a lot of companies offering me opportunities to pursue a degree in various fields of study in engineering.

I went with the first company that called and they happened to be the company that ran a big petrochemical plant in Secunda with various coal mines in the area that supplied coal to the plant. They invited me to see the operations during my Matric year. I visited an underground coal mine and while it was interesting, I was not convinced until we stopped at a bunker on our way out that was being fed by three big conveyor belts.

They were full of coal and running at peak capacity filling up the bunker. The Mine Manager I was with showed us this and said, “Is there anything better than this at the end of a long day?” I was hooked instantly, a job where you could see the results of your work at the end of every day. And mining has not disappointed since. It is one of few jobs where you don’t want the day to end because you get more product the longer the day is.

Q. What do you love the most about mining coal?

I am enjoying my current role as a Technical Services Manager because it is broad. One moment I am working on a licence and permitting issue with the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, next meeting I am discussing Biodiversity actions, followed by a meeting where I am looking at underground roof support designs. Later I am in intense negotiations with the Unions. There is never a boring or quiet day! I have eight departments working on operational support as well as multiple projects. I love working on all the aspects that support the mine to be the best it can be.

Q. Engineering students often complain about the difficulty of the courses. How did you experience your undergraduate years?

Engineering is difficult! Even though I was in the top three of my Matric class I struggled with 1st year Engineering, particularly Calculus. I almost did not make it in the 1st year. I was studying incorrectly. We were taught in High School to study for the exam, practise using old exams and memorise things. That’s not what Engineering is about. Engineering is about developing analytical skills, getting a clear practical understanding of concepts and the curiosity to apply theoretical knowledge to practical environments. Once I figured this out, I started developing interest in my modules that went beyond just passing an exam.

I remember there was a difficult course called Thermodynamics, many people struggled with it, but I found it fun and challenging in a good way. I read up on articles and other books outside of the prescribed books and was interested in the practical examples. That curiosity made me thrive in this course.

Q. Adapting to the workplace as an intern is difficult, more so when the workplace is male dominated. How was the internship experience for you? And what were the challenges you had to deal with? Also do you have advice for incumbent interns?

It was extremely hard. I was a young and eager 21-year-old leading a team of middle aged to almost elderly men. I also had male leadership. It was a difficult few months of my life and I feel I grew and matured a lot in those months. My challenges were multi-layered and I was eager and energetic. I wanted to prove myself. But despite my best efforts, I struggled to get the team to perform and deliver the results I expected of myself.

I had to quickly learn that leadership is not about me but the team. I had to let the team teach me ‘mining’ because university mining is different from what happens in the coal phase. I had to learn how to manage and lead a team. I had to learn how to get the most out of the team. This took me months and the process was hard. I also did not have anyone who could relate to what I was going through at home or at work. Key things I learnt during that time are:

  • Relinquish control and wanting to look like you know everything and let your team teach you the work.
  • Once you have your team’s commitment and have built strong team cohesion, you can achieve your team goals.
  • In the earlier days of your internship, there will be long hours (48 hours is the longest I have stayed at the mine without going home). Sweat and a lot of tears, that’s part of your learning curve.
  • I needed to build my experience and expertise in order to have confidence and credibility.
  • Have a mentor (or 2) who can assist through some of the challenges.
  • Always try to solve business problems, which makes you visible and opportunities will come your way.

Q. In your 13 years career in mining, what have you noticed or experienced as the recurring challenges that women face and in your opinion why are they recurring?

The ‘hard’ stuff has been catered for mostly; infrastructure at the mines improves as more women join the industry, there are working bathrooms underground, women have purpose protective clothes, etc.

The biggest challenge we pick up are difficulties in recruiting and retention. There is also a distinct lack of mentorship for women and not enough opportunities being afforded to women.

It’s a chicken and egg scenario; if you have less women in industry, you attract less women and you can’t retain the women. And the scenario will continue unless there are intentional steps on increasing the representation of women in mining.

Q. Mining is the backbone of South Africa’s economy. How have you navigated the gender pay divide?

Mining is not immune to the global and national gender pay gap. A few years ago, I read a study that said mining might even be worse than the national average. It’s not surprising because mining also has less women specifically in key decision roles where they can start advocating for policies and work practises that foster equal opportunities and compensation for women. That is why we need more women at the top to advocate for women. Within my work environment, I form part of the Employment Equity committee that plays a critical role in the development of women and increasing the representation of women in all levels of the organisation. When women are no longer the minority, advocating for equal pay will be an easier challenge to overcome!

Q. You specifically deal with mining coal, and South Africa highly depends on coal for production of electricity. However, we still have electricity supply problems. From where you’re sitting, what solutions do you think could solve the country’s electricity crisis?

The power supply issues in South Africa are complex. Adequate and reliable coal supply was a small part of the problem which the utility and mining companies have brought under control. However, the performance of the utility company is challenged by maintenance backlogs and poor efficiencies from an ageing fleet of coal power stations. There have also been delays in building and commissioning new power stations. The utility and government need to diligently implement the plans developed to address the well documented challenges.

Q. When one hears the word ‘mining’ manual labour is the picture that automatically comes to mind because many of us have not been exposed to the sector as a whole. Can you please give us a brief overview of mining and what are some of the key roles that you hope to see women occupy?

Firstly women can occupy any role in mining, there are no roles or tasks that are exclusively for men.

Mining offers a wide variety of operational and technical roles. The industry has made major strides in mechanisation and automation. Most jobs are not physically demanding, and those that are can still be done by women. What is important is your intellectual capability, energy, drive and ambition.

My hope is that women strive for the very highest of the offices in the mining industry. This representation will ensure there’s advocacy for equal work places, practices, policies and ultimately a more equal world.

Q. Besides being a Technical Services Manager, you also serve on many leadership boards such as the University of Pretoria’s Convocation Advisory Board where you serve as Vice Chairperson. Can you share three career values that have guided you this far?

I have strong ties with the University of Pretoria, and I have been involved in various projects even after my graduation to support the University. In 2012 I was presenting my master’s dissertation at a conference in San Jose, USA and I met some of the staff from the UP Graduate School of Technology Management, by the time the conference was over I was invited to guest lecture the Quality Management course at Honours and Masters level.

I have always tried to contribute back to my alma mater. I was honoured by the nomination to take a seat on the Advisory Board. The appointment as Vice Chairperson came as a product of the energy and expertise I brought to the Board.

My career guiding principles are:

  •  When you do something, give it your all and the rewards will follow. I never do anything half-heartedly!
  • Take all opportunities offered to you as every single project, task, assignment adds to your expertise and you learn lessons and build networks that you can leverage on later in your career
  • Don’t focus on climbing vertically upwards initially, focusing on broadening your experience base, get exposure in as many roles as possible. All this experience will come in handy when you reach the top.

Q. Congratulations on your recent appointment as the incoming President of the South African Colliery Managers Association (SACMA)! You are the first woman to hold this position in the organisation’s 40 year history. How will your Presidency impact and empower other women and encourage them to step into their power and take up space in the industry but especially in leadership roles?

Thank you! I want my appointment to encourage other women to believe that they can strive for any roles they set their minds on. Representation matters! Any woman joining our industry now knows that they can and should strive for the highest office.

In the presidency itself, I am already working on my strategy, and it coincides with a lot of challenges that the coal sector is dealing with like sustainability, increased community pressures and the transition to a low carbon economy. My year needs to gear up our members to navigate these challenges and be a proactive part of the solutions for shared prosperity. I think it will be an impactful year with many changes.

Q. You also wear the hat of mother and wife. How do you make sure you’re fully present in each one of those roles?

Planning, planning and more planning. I already have a calendar that extends to 2022. That’s how far I plan. I also have a strict routine for the kids. I plan and prepare all meals 2-3 weeks ahead so that when I get home in the evenings, I don’t stand in front of the stove preparing meals and I use that time to spend quality time with my family.

I have a strong support structure at home through a hands-on partner and I have great help. This allows me to be fully present at work and not worry about the kids. I sometimes get home fairly late at night and get an hour with the kids before their bedtime. We focus on activities they want to do; we play games, read, dance and catch up. I focus on quality over quantity.

On weekends I plan one-on-one dates with the kids so I can give each one of them undivided attention.

The strict routine at home also means that the kids are in bed on time, and I can have quality time with my partner, and I can also catch up on work.

Q. What was the last book you read or are currently reading?

I just finished reading “The 10X Rule” by Grant Cardone. It’s an exciting and insightful book. I highly recommend it. I have just started “What Got You Here won’t Get You There” by Goldsmith.

The road to have equal inclusion in the mining sector is still long. As Nozipho said, ‘’it’s a chicken and egg scenario; if you have less women in industry, you attract less women and you can’t retain the women. And the scenario will continue unless there are intentional steps on increasing the representation of women in mining.’’

We are hopeful that in the next few years, there will be more women taking up leadership roles, or any role in mining.