Over the past decade, South Africa has seen more women enter the mining industry than ever before. It was only when the Mines Health and Safety Act of 1996 was made law that women could work underground. While the mining industry remains male-dominated, women are beginning to find their place in it. PONTSHO PILANE spoke to women who work in mining, from Witbank to the Platinum Belt, about their experiences.
Lerato Sechaba*, 31, senior geologist
Working underground was initially challenging for me. I was a young, black woman and I was not respected at all – either due to my gender, race, age or in some cases, all three. There have been times I have wanted to quit. But the higher you go, the easier it becomes. In my 10 years working in the mining sector, I have seen more women come in and that is encouraging. In many instances men will respect me only out of obligation, because I am their boss, and not because I am human. It’s frustrating and sometimes I get angry, but you get tough or you will never do your job.
Thabang Legodi*, 28, mining engineer
I have been working in the mining sector since I was 19, doing my vacation work, and there are things that happen and I think it’s déja vu because they [have happened before[ and are still happening. When I was still a student and a graduate, I struggled to get my male colleagues and other workers to cooperate with me. One guy, who was also a graduate, said I am wasting my time in this industry and I must “make room” for him. Men feel threatened by women in this space, which makes the environment unwelcoming. But more than that, there is lack of infrastructure in some mines for women. I worked in a mine were I used to dread having my period because there was no safe and hygienic space to change my sanitary towel.
Karabo Molefe*, 24, graduate metallurgist
Being a woman in the plant means before I worry about my actual job, I must worry about my clothes. I need to make sure that my jeans are not too tight and I even order overalls two sizes larger so I can hide my bum. Even with oversized overalls, men at work will still leer and stare. Men at work seem to always have ulterior motives: they constantly ask me and other female coworkers out. It’s hard to be friendly without my friendliness being mistaken for an invitation to ask me out. There are double standards when it comes to work; when my male colleague gets a great project to work on, he is amazing. If I get it, people wonder if I am sleeping with our boss. Sadly, sometimes women do sleep with their bosses to get jobs they are more than capable of doing, but they have to prove themselves in other ways.
Tsholofelo Modise, 35, electrician
When I started as an artisan, I was the only female trainee and it was physically challenging. I didn’t realise that I would need to be so fit and at that time I wasn’t. But I got used to the intense labour that comes with the job. Being a woman in the mining industry means working 10 times harder and being aware of myself. I am constantly reminded I am a woman, by the little things like if I reprimand a junior it’s called nagging and when a male colleague does it they are being a leader. I complain – but he criticises. It’s not easy and until we change as a society, it never will be easier for women in this industry. The problem is not just men in the mines: these men are like this before the mines, but this place makes it worse.
Portia Semake*, 25, former metallurgy trainee
I quit the mining industry for many reasons: the ongoing sexism at work was one. I remember being new at work and my overalls were really dirty from the day before and I wore skinny jeans to the plant. My supervisor, a graduate metallurgist, told me I mustn’t come complain when men in the plant touch my bum or hit on me because I am [wearing a revealing outfit]. Sometimes, I used the fact that I was a woman and that men liked me to my own advantage: I would always have someone to help me with sampling. Unfortunately, they would do it thinking they would get something from me.
* Names have been changed to protect identities.
– Both images: Female students doing vacation work on a mine. Please note, the women pictured are not those who spoke to The Daily Vox for this article, who wished to remain anonymous. Credit: Pontsho Pilane.