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Despite the Risks, South African Women Carve Out Careers in Mining

A push to bring some gender balance to South African mining has seen a rise in the number of women in the industry. But a lingering culture of discrimination and sexual harassment means humiliating and potentially dangerous conditions for the women working underground.

Written by Rumbi Chakamba Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
The number of women employed by South Africa’s mines is rising, but many women working underground still face discrimination and sexual harassment. AFP/Mujahid Safodien

Getting a job in the platinum mines of Rustenburg, South Africa, was never the easy option for Dikeledi Mokgaotsi. She’s a woman in an industry that, until 1996, banned women from working underground, and is still largely dominated by men. For her, it was a career borne of necessity – coming from a mining town, there were few other employment opportunities. And it helped that mining pays better than many of the jobs women traditionally undertake.

“When I started, men were not used to seeing women in the mines,” Mokgaotsi says. “There were those who came from an environment where it was believed that a woman should be at home, and was not supposed to work – especially not in a mine.”

South Africa’s economy relies heavily on mining. According to the Chamber of Mines of South Africa, in 2015 the industry contributed 286 billion rand ($22 billion) toward the country’s gross domestic product, representing 7.1 percent of overall GDP. But progress toward bringing more women into the mines, to contribute to and benefit from the industry’s vital role in the economy, has been slow. Mokgaotsi started her mining job in 2004, two years after the government introduced a charter encouraging mining companies to aim for a 10 percent female workforce.

The government reached that goal in 2010, and by 2015 representation of women in mining was up to 18 percent. Mokgaotsi says the treatment of women miners has vastly improved in the 12 years she’s worked in the industry, attributing the change to a younger mindset. As the men she was working with at the start of her career start to retire, “the new generation is more progressive,” she says.

But even with growing quotas and evolving attitudes, Mokgaotsi and other female miners say the work environment underground is still difficult for women, rife with gender discrimination, sexual harassment and, sometimes, outright abuse.

In 2012, the case of female miner Binky Mosiane made headlines across South Africa. Mosiane was raped and murdered by a colleague during her shift underground at Anglo Platinum’s Khomanani mine. The case prompted the industry to impose new safety regulations. “Since then, women are expected to work with a [female] partner,” says Mokgaotsi. But, she adds, mine managers often try to claim that mining is safer now; that the rules are no longer necessary; and that “they can’t afford to have two people working in the same area or going to the toilets at the same time.”

Mokgaotsi says she isn’t convinced by that argument. Every once in a while, there are still reports of rapes or assaults at mines around the country. And as managers try to relax the policies meant to keep women miners safe, very little is being done to address the other forms of discrimination and exploitation they face on an almost daily basis, say activists.

As head of the Rustenburg women’s division of the National Union of Mineworkers and a working miner, Sanki Molefe regularly deals with complaints from female miners about unequal treatment.

While the number of women in mining is rising, companies are not adapting to the changing face of their workforces, she says. Managers often expect women to use the same equipment as men, says Molefe, even though “our bodies are not structured like those of our male counterparts, so as a woman alone you will not be able to do some of the work underground.” Women miners have reported being verbally abused and pushed out of their work teams by men who worry that the women will slow them down.

Molefe says interventions by the trade unions have encouraged some mining companies to start catering to the needs of their female employees, by introducing two-piece uniforms that make it easier to use the bathroom, for example, or bringing in lighter machinery.

But activists say, in many mines, the lack of support for women can lead to sexual harassment. “Men will take advantage and say, ‘In exchange for sexual favors, let me assist you with that so you are able to do your job,’” Molefe says. Faced with the possibility of being fired because they can’t work a certain piece of equipment or have trouble carrying a heavy load, many women feel they have no choice but to trade sex for help.

Molefe says mining companies should be obliged to train their workers on what constitutes sexual harassment, and make it easier for women to report it. “Companies need to work on educating their employees on sexual harassment as [male miners] will say things or touch their female co-workers, while unaware that this is actually sexual harassment,” she says.

Even with all of the challenges facing women miners, there are signs that parts of the industry are becoming more inclusive. According to the Chamber of Mines, training and development programs have helped the majority of women employed in the mining industry move from underground into offices: In 2015, 16 percent of senior management were women.

“We now have women in top management positions, and we even have women underground working as shift supervisors and mine overseers,” she says. “So I would encourage other women to join the industry, and show others that, as women, we can do it.”

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