Sonja van Rooyen talks of mining as a career path where anything is possible as long as you are flexible and like new challenges

“Why I chose to follow the family tradition”

De Beers, 30 Jul 2015
Sonja van Rooyen

What made you go into the world of mining?
My parents could not afford to send two daughters to university and, since my younger sister showed the most potential, I decided to start working. At that stage, options for women were limited to working at a bank, for Telkom, Transnet or the Post Office – if you weren’t studying. None of these institutions were appealing to me. I then found out that De Beers was going to advertise for sorters. I did some homework around the opportunities on offer (and there were many) and submitted my resumé.

What attracted you to De Beers?
Being born and raised in Kimberley, De Beers was always part of being a ‘Kimberlite’ and it felt fitting to continue with the family tradition. My father worked at Wesselton Mine for many years as a shaft carpenter, so growing up I was surrounded on all fronts by De Beers. My playgrounds in those years were the old mine dumps in and around the suburbs we lived in. I was exposed to how De Beers treated staff members and the Kimberley community in general. In fact, I can remember how De Beers played a huge role in my junior school being able to develop a sports field and build a swimming pool. As a result of its role in the community and the opportunities De Beers provided for development and progression, it was the only company I considered applying to.

What roles have you had during your career at the company?
I started as a diamond classifier (sorter, in the good old days) before progressing through the ranks. I moved into the technical sorting department, where we use machines to assist with the sorting, as a departmental controller, a role that was focused more on the admin tasks of the department. I was later appointed as team leader. From there, I went on a two-year secondment to London where I was an assortment creator. Towards the end of my stint in the UK, I applied for the process manager position in Techsort in the Kimberley office, a position I held for two years before being appointed Project Manager for a project in De Beers Sightholder Sales South Africa that is seeking improvements in the diamond pipeline processes from the receipt of goods from the mine to the sale of rough diamonds.

What kind of support have you had during your career?
There have been many role models throughout my years in De Beers at various levels in the business. As I progressed in the company and was exposed to different operations, my mentors have changed. But I keep in touch with them. I still learn from my colleagues daily and I’m sure I’ll have a few more mentors and role models before I reach retirement age.

Is there any role you are aiming for in the coming years?
I don’t think there is one specific role I’m aiming for, as I would not like to restrict myself or box myself into any one role. I’d rather say I’m flexible and keeping my options open. A lateral move for me would be to become the manager of Assortment Implementation Management in De Beers Global Sightholder Sales. This will be a different challenge as you focus not only on one discipline such as sorting but rather on numerous disciplines and how they interact to help you achieve a desired outcome – for instance, how machine processes can assist in sorting efficiencies and yet still have you achieving global sorting standards. I have also not disregarded the option of operations manager. To be frank, I think I want to concentrate on successfully delivering in my current role before I think about where to next.

What advice would you give a woman starting in the mining industry?
If you enjoy a challenge and love diversity in your job, a mining career is the place to be. Once you’ve established yourself in a given role, there are so many options for branching out and attempting a new direction. I think the thing to remember is that a mining career is not limited to working at the mine. Although the diamond starts at the mine, it ends on a customer’s finger. There are so many aspects of mining that the sky is the limit. Anything is possible if you are flexible, willing to learn and have a desire to undertake new challenges.

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