Zelmia Botha is only the fourth woman to lead the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (SAIMM) and the youngest person in its +120-year history. Zelmia was originally drawn to mining engineering, but started her studies in metallurgy and has never looked back. She completed her BEng and BEng Honours degrees in metallurgical engineering at the University of Pretoria. She started her career in iron ore with Exxaro, but then moved to coal process engineering in 2008, where she was involved with projects in India and China. In 2017, she was offered an opportunity to move from a highly specialized environment into a leadership role and she became the Commissioning Manager of the USD 250M Grootegeluk Expansion Mega-Project in Lephalale, South Africa. This was a turning point in her career and her experience highlights the importance of building relationships, effective stakeholder management, diversity and inclusion, and innovation in the success of any mega project. Zelmia’s involvement with the SAIMM started with responsibility for the annual SAIMM Student Colloquium: today, she serves on the Technical Programme Committee, the committee for Diversity and Inclusion in the Minerals Industry, and as a Council Office Bearer.
By Kathy Sole
Please tell us how you came to select metallurgy and mining as a career choice?
I have always been surrounded by engineers while growing up, from civil engineers to mechanical, electrical, mining, and metallurgical engineers. And to be completely honest, I actually applied to study for mining engineering! However, I was awarded a bursary in metallurgical engineering and that was the start of everything for me!
Please describe your career progression and how you reached your current senior position within your organisation.
I started out in Research and Development. Unfortunately, I very quickly realized that I’m not a researcher; however, I enjoyed evaluating the pyrometallurgical characteristics of our iron ore in price negotiations with India and China. I moved over to Pyrometallurgy, but this was an extremely short stint, given that the furnace I worked on blew up (H2 condensing and dripping on hot slag, is never a good combination). I immediately phoned my line manager and asked him to move me: pyrometallurgy was definitely not for me.
I then moved over to process engineering. I started working from the design of a beneficiation plant, to execution, to commissioning. I was exposed to the management of all types of contracts, risk management, operational readiness, and quality control (to name a few). I very quickly realized that I was working with the full project lifecycle and I enjoyed this area of engineering very much. I had found my passion.
I had the opportunity to be involved in carbon, coal, and coking coal projects in India and China and worked with multi-disciplinary teams in both countries.
In 2017, I was offered an opportunity to move into a leadership role and I became the Commissioning Manager of the USD 250M Grootegeluk Expansion Mega-Project in Lephalale [Limpopo province, South Africa]. This was a turning point in my career. More about this later…
I would not have had this exposure and opportunities if it were not for extremely committed leaders and mentors, who believe in “power to” and want to empower everyone to do value-adding work.
You have recently been appointed as President of the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (SAIMM), which is the professional body representing the industry on the Africa subcontinent. You are only the fourth woman to hold this position in the 128-year history of the organisation (and the youngest person ever). Please describe how you became involved in this volunteer role and eventually came to lead this prestigious organisation.
Again, I would not have had this wonderful opportunity, if it was not for an amazing leader within SAIMM. Dr Rodney Jones introduced me to the idea of development within SAIMM. It was the first time that I realized SAIMM offered career development, moving from organizing international conferences to actively being involved in decision making on the SAIMM Council, into Office Bearers, where I was exposed to how we relate to and work with the various stakeholders in our minerals industry. Dr Jones showed me how we are all gears of a bigger machine and that our global partners [including SME, CIM, AusIMM] face the same challenges we do. I was astounded by the global collaboration and knowledge sharing that SAIMM had with all its stakeholders and partners. It was the first time that I realized what I don’t know: that we are indeed a global village and that SAIMM creates a platform for us to connect. Dr Jones taught me the value of this.
When I faced hardship in my personal life, SAIMM became a family and allowed me space and time to grieve. Dr Jones checked in with me regularly and this just made it very clear for me, I wanted to be a part of this family.
Please tell us about your plans for your year of office as President of the SAIMM? What are your challenges and priorities?
First of all, I would like to continue the wonderful work done by past presidents. I am standing on the shoulders of giants and I would like to ensure that their legacy lives on. One of these initiatives is the SAIMM Corporate Partnership. This is an expanded offering to company members that aims at broadening the benefits to and level of involvement of companies operating in the mining and metals industry in Southern Africa. This initiative will not only grow SAIMM’s membership numbers and network, but will also allow targeted engagements and relationship building with key industry leaders. Through our partnerships, we want to unlock the value proposition of SAIMM for Corporate Southern Africa. We want to be adaptable to the changing environment and the changing needs of both individual and company members; therefore, we want to match the individual needs of our corporate partners and the roles that these entities play within the greater eco-system of mining and metallurgy in the subcontinent.
I remain supportive of our Diversity and Inclusion Committee (DIMI). I especially would like to drive alignment between DIMI and the Minerals Council in terms of the Minerals Council’s White Paper on diversity and inclusion. Seven drives have already been published and I want DIMI to get involved in these moving forward.
One of our brand-new initiatives is our SAIMM podcasts. We want our podcasts to be a call to action so anyone who listens will hear ‘What does this podcast give me to do in the future’.
As a team, we are also looking at a deeper connection between our final year students and industry, to ensure exposure, value adding work, and a practical final-year thesis.
Overall, our goal this year is to be on the move!
Please describe your personal and professional attributes that you consider have been most influential in your success.
Personally, I have two values that are very important to me: “to be brave enough to show up” and “to do value-adding work”. I want to inspire our young professionals to not only take up a leadership role, but to have the courage to actively seek out leadership opportunities and make the change!
My professional attributes are based on my personal values. In addition to this, I not only believe in the power of knowledge, but definitely in the power of relationships. I believe in collaboration and that diversity is the key to innovation. I want to know what the different perspectives are of all my stakeholders; I want to understand how I can harness the strengths of all my team members. I believe this curiosity and this drive is what fosters success for all of us.
I cannot stress the importance of formidable mentors, coaches, and role models enough. Find your leadership philosophy and find a mentor that models this for you, every day.
What has been the most rewarding professional experience or project of your career?
In 2017, I was offered an opportunity to move into a leadership role and I became the Commissioning Manager of Exxaro’s USD 250M Grootegeluk Expansion Mega-Project. This was a turning point in my career.
This was the steepest learning curve of my entire career. Being part of a design team, then an execution team, and then being able to commission three beneficiation plants, was the opportunity of a lifetime. However, the stakeholder relationship management was the most important area of growth for me. Learning to stay curious, learning how to enable constructive conflict and learning the impact of a leadership philosophy was life-changing for me. How to build a healthy culture, a safe space, and create belonging in a multi-disciplinary team, is the most rewarding experience I have ever had.
From a purely engineering point of view, this project enabled our country to increase exports: just seeing that first export coal going onto a product conveyor into a brand new stockyard was phenomenal! We also incorporated a new fine coal processing technology, and to see that operate and achieve its targets was an enormous win for our design engineers!
What has been most challenging in your career?
I have had two immense impacts on my life, which also influenced my career and my career choices.
My husband passed away during 2018. He was our rock and he enabled me to have a career away from home. Loosing my husband forced me to re-plan my entire life and my entire career. I had to put my children first and still find a way to achieve my professional goals. This was the most difficult journey I ever had to make. I have immense respect for single mothers—you are the true heroes.
I believe everyone will agree when I say COVID also had an immense impact, especially when the best project of my career was shut down in mid commissioning. The construction industry was not allowed to open and our teams did not know if they would have jobs at the end of 2020. More than 2000 employees (maybe even more if we count dependants) were unsure of what tomorrow might bring. I must be honest, the grey areas, the paradoxes, and the ambiguity at that time, did not sit well with me at all.
Have you had/do you have any mentors or sponsors who have supported or enhanced your career development? How do you see the role of such professionals, and do we need more focus on such opportunities for young people?
This is definitely important. I have had an incredible leader, Dr Jaco van Dyk, who gave me the opportunity to become a leader, who challenged my perception of leadership of empowerment and the importance of relationships and collaboration. He made me believe in my own capabilities. That support is invaluable and priceless. I want to encourage all South African young professionals to join the Young Professionals Council and make use of our mentorship programme. Have the courage to test this networking opportunity! Decide for yourself, based on your experience!
As a leader in this industry, working with a variety of stakeholders ranging from government ministers, corporate executives, technical and operational staff, please share your leadership philosophy and how you manage diversity in the workplace.
I am not an “expert” on this very meaningful Diversity and Inclusion journey. However, I realized throughout my career that there is so much I am not aware of and that I don’t always understand the impact of my actions (no matter my intent). Therefore, I have two amazing coaches in my life, Karien and Neo, who have given me exposure to amazing literature and conversations. What I’ve realized from this exposure is that it’s vital for any leader to stay curious, to ask why, and to ask what happened to you on your journey.
For me, in my own team, it’s very important to have engaged feedback sessions and to rumble with this topic. Maybe the most important of all—and I want to encourage all leaders to please do this—is to invest in facilitated sessions with experienced coaches to create a safe space for engaged feedback sessions on diversity and inclusion. Invest in creating a space of belonging! These coaches ensure that everyone sits at the table and that everyone who sits at the table has a voice that is being heard!
I have also realized that “sameness” is the enemy of diversity and therefore the enemy of innovation. We are not the same. It is so important to understand how we are different, to understand what our different values are, and how these shape our current reality.
Do you believe that the presence of women in significant operational and support roles influences the ultimate success of the operation? Does a more diverse operating team lead to better or different decisions?
I firmly believe this. Dr Dr Etienne van der Walt, Co-Founder and CEO of Neurozone, is a neurologist with a 14-year career as a clinical neurologist and an authority in applied behavioural neuroscience. The Neurozone work clearly shows the different impacts of the feminine and the masculine brain on leadership philosophies. The feminine brain wants to collaborate and can take note of various needs of various stakeholders at the same time.
Laura Liswood believes that women network differently, they form deeper connections, collaborate differently, find more creative solutions (born out of necessity), focus more on various stakeholders, and tend to be better prepared. Helena Morrissey established the 30% Club, which campaigns to increase the number of women on company boards, and has spread to 14 different countries and regions. As this initiative grows, Morrissey has seen how diversity has become part of a solution and her data show that the 12.5% of women on boards increased to 30%. In 2019, at the Forbes Women’s Summit in New York City, Christine Lagarde, the first female managing director of the International Monetary Fund, found in her research that adding one more woman to a company’s management or board is associated with a boost in return on assets of up to 13%. Another IMF report concluded that banks are more stable when they have more women on their boards.
I do believe that we need a balance. Diversity is a balance, a bridge, and a collaboration. I believe in gender unity. I believe in the balance.
It is important to bring new talent into this industry. Do you have any suggestions on how to recommendations for attracting young girls and boys to enter a technical career in a science or engineering field?
I firmly believe in the importance of this. For any entity to grow, it needs new nourishment: anything from new challenges, new environments, to new talent. I believe in terms of girls entering the STEM arena, we do have a few challenges. For example, why, in countries with equal education and opportunity, do women still choose not to enter STEM (as shown by Stoet and Geary, 2018, in their educational-gender-equality paradox)? It seems that the more gender equality in a country, the fewer women in STEM. There is no clear reason for the cause of this paradox; however, they did find that we should focus our efforts on those young, would-be STEM women and form programmes specifically aimed at creating positive environments for girls to interact with STEM ideas.
Across literature, there are eight common themes to stimulate new, diverse entrants into the STEM arena.
1. Become an active partner. Become aware of organizations that want to provide young girls and women with the STEM education needed.
2. Give back. Numerous organizations fund corporate social responsibility initiatives. Financial donations and sponsorships are always needed.
3. Create exposure to best practices in the STEM environment. Identify and invite external guest speakers who can share career inspiration and best practices in diversity and inclusion.
4. Create internships with a focus not only on diversity and inclusion, but also on future needs. Involve young would-be STEM women in emerging technologies (like the cloud, AI, and edge computing).
5. Make engineering socially relevant. Papers published by Colvin, Lyden, and León de la Barra (2013) and Tyler-Wood et al. (2012) suggest that highlighting the communal aspects of STEM careers increases girls’ interest in this field.
6. Cultivate a sense of belonging. Again, this has been proven by the Neurozone work of Dr van der Walt. Literature suggests a few simple methods of increasing sense of belonging: firstly, to introduce women to engineering at an early age; secondly, cultivate awareness of subtle cues that can send a message to women that they don’t belong in an environment. Actively work on changing the representations people are exposed to, emphasize the value that women bring to the table (for example, their natural collaboration skills (Derks, van Laar, and Ellmers, 2007)), and increase visibility of women in the industry.
7. Education. A report by the UN (https:// www.unwomen.org) found that education is so important that females will earn 10% to 20% more for each additional year they spend in primary school. Therefore, we need to give young would-be STEM women equal opportunities and equal rights of access to resources, which will also lead to global economic development.
8. Learn about your own implicit bias. There is an opportunity to take your own implicit association tests at https://implicit.harvard.edu. It remains true that implicit biases operate at an unconscious level; however, individuals can actively work on becoming more aware of how and why they make decisions. If bias has an impact on decision-making, take the necessary steps to correct this.
Do you have any advice to young women starting out in their careers, particularly in the Southern African context? What do you wish you’d known when you were 25?
Have the courage to test different environments. Have the courage to move often. Find a role model who lives your leadership philosophy. Most importantly of all, decide what your two most important values are and operationalize your values: live your values.
Have you any hobbies, pastimes, or secret talents that you would like to tell us about?
All I’m going to say is that I can play piano and I’ve passed my Grade 7 Unisa exams … (but, please don’t ask me to play!)