South African, Zandile Buthelesi, is General Manager Projects at African Exploration Mining and Finance Corp. Her motto is: “if you are somewhere that does not serve your purpose then you leave and you go and find it somewhere else”. This is something she has done in her career. A passionate advocate of women in mining, she believes that for young women starting up, you need role models and someone to hold your hand, to understand that this path is walked on and that is something that you can do. She wants to encourage women to network and to take control of their careers, because she says no one else is going to do it for you. She wants to challenge stereotypes over what you should say, how you should behave and what you should look like to work in mining. By Camila Reed
How did mining come to you? How did you choose mining as a career?
It was more by default than design. I was at high school and considering a job in a large mining house and while being interviewed by a careers guidance firm I looked at the options and career paths on offer and chose geology.
When they explained the different aspects and disciplines in mining most of them felt very directive to me; do mining and you go underground. And so geology appealed because it offered so many more options. You could be an exploration geologist, a production geologist and it gave you a lot of autonomy in the job.
What is your experience of being a woman working in the mining sector?
The mining industry in South Africa has come a very long way and I’m really enjoying myself. I’ve been in the sector for the past 11 years now.
It started off being rough and I think we certainly need to take our hats off to the women who paved the way for us because when I joined the industry in 2006 it was a much warmer environment for women in mining.
At Anglo Coal where I started my career, they had a warm and welcoming environment for women so I didn’t really struggle as a woman in the industry.
What is it about mining that appeals to you? Does it match up to your expectations?
I think it has. I went through the hard core geologist bit, being an underground geologist, I have done open cast, I have done exploration and now I am doing projects and I’m really enjoying myself and I would say that the discipline of geology has lived up to my expectations as has the industry itself.
I love the being outside and being out of the office, although as an executive now I spend a lot of time in the office. But what’s important is that I have that autonomy of having the option to go out into the field and this is something that appeals.
You’ve worked for large international companies was that a conscious choice?
I would not have done it any other way. It worked well because I got offered a bursary by Anglo and then I was obliged to work for them for four years.
They provided a very solid and good training foundation for me. The international companies do that very well and particularly Anglo. They invest a lot of money and time in building the technical and soft skills.
I joined Xstrata at a time when I had enough of my training. I needed to stretch my wings and so I jumped to another international company.
Since then I joined a start-up, a small state-owned government mining company. For me it has been the best choice with my background and foundations and being able to continue my career growth.
I would not have changed anything about starting my career working for a big organisation like Anglo American or Xstrata.
Have you/do you encounter much discrimination?
No, not really no on gender, maybe on colour.
Have you had mentors and sponsors that helped you on the way?
Yes absolutely. When I worked for Anglo Claire Logan Delagay, who was the human resource manager at the time held my hand and Ranganai Chinamatira, who’s the head of technical services at Anglo Coal South Africa assisted me with looking at the industry somehow through a man’s lens. Also the CEO of Lonmin Ben Magara. I remain in contact with them.
Could you share one or two challenges you’ve experienced in your career and how you overcame them?
For me I get bored very easily. One of the biggest challenges I found working for large organisations is that at some point you find yourself doing the same thing over and over again and as an ambitious, driven woman I really feel that I have done and learnt this and I need to move on.
So one of the challenges I really battled with was that.
What I said to myself was if you need to grow, then it is entirely up to you, so I left and I made myself grow. Because my motto in my life is that if you are somewhere that does not serve your purpose then you leave and you go and find it somewhere else and so for me it was when I felt my career was stagnant and not growing or learning. Then before I got bored in this career I decided I would just move
What are you passionate about in your work?
I’m passionate about women and helping their careers. And I believe that for young women starting up, you need someone to hold your hand to understand that this path is walked on and that is something that you can do.
The second one is project execution. I love seeing projects coming into operation. You are bringing something into existence it’s like creating life, a new born baby.
Seeing a project come to fruition, you are creating employment and an operation and passing it onto other people who will manage it and create value by generating revenues.
What would you love to do next?
First of all finish my MBA and then I would like to move into an executive position at a bigger organisation. Having tasted the role of an executive at a smaller firm, I would like to test and broaden my horizons at a larger organisation where there’s quite lot of diversity, there’s a large project pipeline and big revenues generated so the risk and the role is quite big.
So my next move is back to a larger company in a more senior role than when I left.
Why was it important to take part in the Women Navigating the Future event?
I think there are lots of untold stories out there and I feel that it could be that there’s someone out there waiting to hear your story to make a break through.
With this first Women Navigating the Future event, it’s brilliant because it gives women a platform to tell their stories but it also gives women role models and an ability to see that you too can do it, there’s a sort of comfort in that.
I’m very passionate about women in construction or mining, a male dominated environment. Primarily, as a country, South Africa, I don’t think have we have as many women represented at senior levels or executive and board levels.
And I think it’s time we tell junior women geologists and environmentalists wherever that you can still climb this ladder and get onto a board or become a senior manager.
What is one thing you wish you’d been told when you were starting out that you know now?
I really, really, wish that someone had told me that my career and my progress and my progressing in life is not in someone else’s hands – it’s in my hands. If I had known that much earlier I would stopped waiting for the system to promote me and stopped waiting for the system to do this and that for me.
As women I think we need to understand that in the palm of your hand you can carry your success and I think if you know that early in your life then you can be so driven that you will not be able to blame someone else if things don’t work out because it’s in your hands.
I wish someone had pulled me by the ear and told me and said you need to take your life and your career seriously because no one else is going to do it for you.
Do you sit on a board? If not would you like to?
Not at the moment and yes absolutely I would like to.
What is your opinion in the women on boards’ debate? Are you pro quotas or against them?
I’m certainly not against them because I would like to see myself sitting there one day. I really believe that women have a lot of untapped potential and in board debates they bring another way of thinking and perspective in the way they look at things.
So I think we are underrepresented in boards in my country and elsewhere and I would really like to see that change.
It’s my view that in senior positions you need to have a different kind of thinking. We need to breathe femininity and a different style and way of doing things into boards and embrace change as we move into a technological and dynamic environment in the future.
Do you believe women in mining groups can help to change the image of the industry and make the sector more attractive to women?
Yes I do. When you listen to women speak or share their experiences, then it will change the way our industry is viewed or known. It will also encourage women to be part of the industry which has been labelled as a rather male-dominated and perhaps not so sexy industry. If the industry is perceived in a certain way then it is good have representations of the different roles and careers that women hold as this helps to change the perception of the industry at large.
How is the commodity downturn affecting women in mining in South Africa? Are women being discouraged to enter mining?
It is changing the dynamics altogether because with the retrenchments you are not being made redundant because of your gender or your skin colour. The cutbacks are being made because the industry is not doing well.
It is taking a knock in terms of what we are trying to do with the women in mining here in South Africa where we are wanting to have lots of female representation but the industry as a whole is really struggling.
It is forcing the way that we used to think about employment as a country and as women. It is making us change the way we think. You can’t just wait for employment you have to create it yourself. You need to unleash the entrepreneurial spirit within you. You are not going to wait for the industry to come back, to feed your kids, to make it work.
So what is it that you know? What skills do you have – you need to make something meaningful out of it whether you are male or female.
Any advice to young women starting out in their careers?
My advice is be true to yourself, set your goals and go after them with all that you have and do your utmost to get what you want. I always say to women that I meet: “the sky is not the limit, your mind is the limit”.
How do you manage the work/life balance?
I don’t know (giggles), I think it depends on how badly you want to ACHIEVE at particular goal at a particular time in your life. Right now I’m focusing on finishing my MBA but I’m also a Mum, a wife, a sister and an executive.
I have got different roles but certainly some of them will take a knock at this given point in time because I have prioritised this MBA and I’m going after it with all I have.
It’s just for a two-year period so sometimes you need to shift your priorities at any given point in time. It really is difficult to juggle all these balls and some days you feel like – yes you are winning and doing this work/life balance thing well and then another day I will feel oh-dear I could really be doing this better than I am.
You try and do the most with what you have in the 24 hours and how you prioritise the 24 hours with what is important to you.
Anything else that you feel is important that you would like to share?
As women we really don’t do enough networking. I don’t know whether that is because ordinarily the people we would be doing it with predominantly would be male and so we shy back or it’s because it’s not really in our nature and we would rather be doing other things.
I would really like to encourage women to build a huge network for ourselves because you never know when you will need to tap into it and if you close it off to your close family and friends that’s not really networking.
Make a conscious decision of making sure you go out there and network and build credible relationships and solid relationships that one day I could pick up the phone and call in a favour. I believe you can turn your networks into your net worth.
You can’t have that if you don’t have solid networks and solid relationships.