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In mines' depths, S. Africa's women find equality

Published October 15, 2006

[Photo: Caroline Suzman]
Not so long ago, it was unheard of. But today, it’s no longer unusual to see female workers descending alongside men into South Africa’s mines.
Go to audio slideshow

RUSTENBURG, South Africa — The transformation of an oppressive nation into a place where a poor woman allows herself to dream begins in a narrow aluminum trailer where pink and yellow ladies’ underwear pile up in the corner and cheap perfume mixes with sweat.

It’s early morning and inside the women’s change house at the Impala platinum mine Elizabeth Mwase unfastens the ankle straps of her black pumps. Tall and statuesque, Mwase slides out of her lacy camisole, tight brown polyester slacks and chiffon blouse. She replaces the outfit with a bulky one-piece white jumpsuit and tall black rubber boots. They mask every curve.

A year ago, Mwase, a single mother of a 13-year-old boy, would have been headed to work at a school on the outskirts of town to teach village children. Now the 34-year-old spends her days breaking rock 1-mile underground at the Impala Platinum mine.

“Development of a person — it is a nice thing to see,” Mwase said. “But I was practically unable to feed my son.”
As a rock breaker, Mwase makes about $700 a month — seven times what she made as a teacher.

Until recently it was illegal for women to work underground in a mine, a vestige of the oppressive apartheid regime that controlled the country. For thousands of women in South Africa’s poor towns, that meant the economic powerhouse minutes from their doorsteps was off limits.

“The thing is women, according to the culture, were not created to work heavy jobs,” Mwase said. “But what are we to do if there are no jobs?”

The new democratic South Africa agrees with her.

That’s why they’ve ordered mining companies, like Impala, to employ women in underground jobs, some of the best-paying in the country. Of the 23,500 people who work underground at Impala, 720 are now women. Officials say they hope the changes below ground will cause some seismic shifts in how the world works above ground, too.

As Mwase exits the dim trailer into the morning air, the sun shines on the Impala mine complex rising from the barren soil of the Bushveld. It is an industrial skyline of smoke stacks and conveyor belts ferrying tons of ore from deep below the earth. A siren goes off, signifying the beginning of the shift.

Mwase joins the crowd shuffling toward the No. 12 shaft. The miners cram into the “cage,” which will carry them one mile underground. From behind, little separates Mwase from the men except tiny plaits peeking out from underneath her hard hat.

* * *

When he took office in 1999, it was clear to President Thabo Mbeki that the fall of apartheid five years earlier had solved some of the country’s problems, but not all.

In 1994, the year of the country’s first democratic election, only 58 percent of South Africans had electricity. Now the number is 85 percent, according to the South African Advertising Research Foundation. Access to running water went from 68 percent in 1994 to 75 percent in 2004. More than 3-million people have risen from poverty — someone who earns less than $2 a day — in the past 10 years.

But the country’s unemployment rate is more than 30 percent. And of South Africa’s 44-million people, more than 5-million live with HIV, a humanitarian crisis that is crippling the country’s labor force.

“Initially the focus when we became a democratic country in 1994 was on government and giving power back to local municipalities taken away during apartheid,” said Colin Reddy of the BusinessMap Foundation, a nonprofit that tracks economic trends. “There really wasn’t a concerted effort towards economic empowerment at that stage.”

In 2002, Mbeki signed legislation mandating that all businesses operating in South Africa improve skills training, hiring and promotion of blacks and women. Mining, the country’s signature industry, was at the top of the list.
South Africa is the world’s largest producer of gold and platinum, making it among the most modern and wealthy nations on the continent. Platinum is used in everything from car parts to cigarette lighters.

But to maintain the supply of precious minerals and remain profitable, the mining companies historically pulled tens of thousands of men from remote areas across the country. Miles from home, the workers lived in teeming hostels. Most worked 11 months of the year, only returning home to their families for brief visits. The only evidence the men were even alive were monthly deposits to bank accounts set up for the miners’ wives.

To repair those damaged communities, the new guidelines require that the companies recruit from the communities surrounding the mines — especially women.

The rationale is, “If you give a woman a job, she will look after her kids, she will look after the elderly in the community,” said Natalie Africa, director of the gender entrepreneur market for the International Finance Cooperation, the lending arm of the World Bank. “You’ve in essence empowered the community.”

* * *

For almost 10 minutes the steel cage descends, screeching into the darkness. The miners click on their head-lamps. A mile down, the miners board a train about 3 feet high that ferries them to the mine face.
“Tina hamba,” yells mine overseer Lourens Hildebrand, a husky white Afrikaner. “Let’s go.”

He speaks in Fanagalo, a creole that was developed to bridge the communication gap between black workers, who spoke a variety of tribal tongues, and their white bosses, who spoke English or the Dutch-derived Afrikaans.

The undulating tunnels allow the miners to walk upright in some areas but force them to duck low in others. It is close to 100 degrees. The air is smothering and smells of diesel fuel and ammonia. The floor is jagged rock.

Mwase arrives at her work station to find a pit full of boulders left by the previous shift for her to crush into smaller pieces.

She mounts her machine, a chariot-shaped booth with a giant hammer where the horses would be. She flips down a mesh mask over her mahogany face and with the giant robotic arm smashes the rock below. The ground vibrates.

Mwase glows with sweat.

Mwase is the first woman at Impala permitted to operate this machine. Despite the hiring mandate, the company still considers some jobs, often the better paying ones, unfit for women. When Mwase first came to Impala, she shoveled broken ore onto a conveyor belt for eight hours.

“I was working really very hard to prove to them I could do it,” Mwase said. “I asked my supervisor, I want to try this machine, just give me a chance.”

“He said, 'Really, Lizzy, can you do it?’ I say, 'I can do it.’

“And now I am operating the big rock operator machine,” she said. “I call it my baby. I keep it clean and I can rock and roll with it.”

The machines aren’t the only difficult thing to handle underground.

Since the first woman was hired in 2004 there have been two reported cases of sexual harassment at Impala, according to mine officials. In one incident, a man wandered into the women’s changing house. He received a warning. Mine officials acknowledge that some harassment is never reported. Indiscretion works both ways, however. In the recesses of the mine, some men pay for sex.

For the most part, the harassment is less overt. Instead of groping, there is an assertion of dominance by the men.

“They discourage you,” said Comfort Lerato Maine, 25. “They say, 'No, don’t do that, don’t pick that up, why you want to do that? You are a woman.’”

“And I say, 'Yes, I am a woman and I am a winch operator.’”

Tucked away from the booming of Mwase’s machine, Jonathan Tledima and Daniel Mokwatlon, both in their late 20s, kneel and match wires that will be used to blast rock. They are training Kedibone Maile, a 23-year-old woman who wants to become an electrician.

“It’s an opportunity for them if they are willing to make it work,” said Tledima about his new co-workers.
Mokwatlon says he isn’t so sure. “You have to understand this is a mine,” he said. “The environment is very harsh.”

They agree the introduction of women into an all-male workforce has strained gender roles in African culture. Neither Tledima or Mokwatlon would marry a woman miner.

“I know what goes on under here,” Mokwatlon said. He says the mines make women tough and strong-willed. “I wouldn’t want to deal with that when I go home.”

* * *

Two hours east from Rustenburg, along the Bakwena toll road or the “platinum highway,” lies Impala’s swank headquarters. The brick building sits in an office park in one of Johannesburg’s most exclusive suburbs.
For more than a decade, Cathie Markus, executive director of corporate affairs, has steered the company through many complex deals.

Putting women in the mines may be the toughest challenge yet, says Markus, a sprite of a woman who wears a platinum band laced with diamonds on her pinky.

And the stakes are higher.

Impala needs to hire and keep at least 1,780 women in underground jobs by 2009, about 1,000 more than work there now. If not, it could lose its license. The company reported $2.7-billion in sales last year.

“It’s hard going for a number of reasons,” Markus said. “Women’s tolerance to heat is lower. They get hot faster, and that’s a problem; many women who want to work underground fail. But a lot of work needs to be done to determine: Does that matter?”

To work underground, women must pass a fitness test. Their heart rate and heat tolerance are monitored while stooping, lifting and operating drills. Only 10 percent of the women pass; many men fail, too.

And then there’s maternity leave.

The current policy offers four months paid leave. But once a woman is pregnant she can not go underground, according to company policy. The company is supposed to find a job for her above ground, but that doesn’t always happen.

It might be easier, officials say, to hand out free birth control.

Introducing women underground at Impala has also meant structural changes. New change houses are under construction across the mining complex and underground the company has had to build bathrooms with locks.
But mine officials say they  fear making too many changes for women could prompt men to make demands, too. “We have said we are not going to give women preferential treatment,” said Johanna Tau, transformation manager at the Impala mine. “If they’re going to contribute toward the production, we have to keep things the same.”

Change upsets investors. In 2002, when word leaked about the industry’s proposed response to the new laws, platinum stocks lost billions in value.

“I don’t know if it’s really ever come back,” Markus said.

* * *

The end of the workday draws near and “Ausi-Lizy” — Sister Elizabeth, a nickname her crew gave her — sits quietly waiting for the train, her eyes low and back slumped. Next to her are Hildebrand and another white mine manager.
It’s a scene that wouldn’t have happened a decade ago anywhere in the country, let alone in the mines.

As a child Mwase’s father worked the coal mines of Rustenburg. He came to South Africa from Malawi, a young man looking for work. He married a Swazi woman and they had three girls. By the end of his life, he had purchased a home for his family.

And now Mwase is pinning her future on the mines, too.

“I want all my needs, not my wants,” she said. “A house, a car ...” When she allows herself to dream, she grins and says quietly: “A school for children in the rural villages.”

Above ground now, Mwase normally would head to the change house to slip back into her blouse, slacks and heels. To become soft again. Today, the transformation will have to wait. She’s pulling a double shift.

-- Nicole Johnson is this year’s recipient of the National Association of Black Journalists Ethel Payne fellowship. She can be reached at njohnson@sptimescom or 727-445-4162.

[Last modified October 15, 2006, 08:48:50]

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