Mandlakazi Semane has an impressive track record in the mining industry and continues to pave her way to success through hard work and commitment, writes Leon Louw.
Mandlakazi, you were recently appointed as the first black female plant manager at Kumba Iron Ore’s Kolomela Mine in the Northern Cape. Tell us a bit about your progression through the ranks.
My undergraduate degree was in chemistry at the then Technicon of Natal (today, the Durban University of Technology). At the start of my studies, I never thought of working in the mining industry. As things turned out, however, I joined Anglo American (then it was still known as Kumba Resources) in the research and development arm of the Department of Raw Materials Technology. As a technician in mineralogy, I specialised in the characterisation of iron ore. During this time, I completed an honours degree at the University of Pretoria, specialising in metallurgy, before the company appointed me as process engineer.
My responsibility was to characterise raw materials and iron ore, and to determine the value of iron ore in an iron-making environment. In this role, I worked very closely with the technical marketing teams, who actually sold our products.
In a nutshell, I started at the end of Kumba’s value chain when I joined the mining industry in 2002.
Since then you have held a few other interesting positions?
I moved to Sishen as a senior process engineer, where I was responsible for product handling. There I was involved in the final product side of the business. Soon after that, I joined the logistics team and became the distribution manager for the Northern Cape, which included distributing Sishen and Kolomela’s product. I worked there for two years, then went for a short stint at Thabazimbi, before moving back to Sishen where I was appointed as jig production manager from 2014 to 2016. My last position at Sishen was section manager technical services before moving to Kolomela as plant manager.
So, you have only just started at Kolomela?
Yes, my first day at Kolomela was on the first of June.
Tell me about your challenges of getting involved in the mining industry and the challenges you have experienced over the years?
I studied chemistry, and my ambition was to work in the chemical industry. I never really saw myself in the mining industry. So, it was a complete change of the initial plan. I ended up in mining by default, and I started enjoying it a lot.
When I started in the mining industry in 2002, it was not easy for a woman. Women were not always as well respected as their male counterparts. However, at the time, there were focused programmes to make workers aware that women play a vital role in the engineering space, and that they add immense value. These programmes helped, so from then on there was a lot of support, a lot of coaching, and a lot of mentoring.
The transition was needed. But yes, I suppose it wasn’t always an easy journey. But I also learned that when people realise that you are adding value, and that you are not just a token and are very competent and delivering on your targets, their attitudes change.
Do you see a difference in the attitudes today compared to what it would have been in the past?
There has been a general change in attitudes over the years. Today, people are more open and we all know what we are supposed to do. People are more accepting, and there has been a transition.
The playing fields are now level, and it is about what value the person brings to the table. It is about your competence and not just about ticking boxes and complying. Kumba has progressed exceptionally well. We are in a good space and do not get the same complaints that we had to deal with 10 years ago. I am convinced that we have made good progress.
We have a platform at Kumba called Women in Mining. This platform was established to make sure that women’s voices are heard at a very high level. Kumba has put in a lot of effort to ensure a safe space for all its workers. Technology has also enabled women to play a bigger role in the actual physical operations of a mine. For example, women can now operate drill rigs remotely from the office.
Are we at a point where we do not have to differentiate between gender anymore?
We have progressed, and it is not just about gender anymore. At Kumba, we do feel that there are equal opportunities. But the conversation and debate should be about ability, understanding, and depth in your sphere, not about gender. It is irrelevant.
What advice do you have for young women who are thinking about entering the mining industry?
My first advice is: do not try to be a man! Be yourself, you are not a man. If you want to look good, well, that is who you are, that is what you are like, and if you like spending time on doing that, so be it!
From a career perspective, it is always important that you have a focused goal. And remember, things will not always go your way — be prepared for that. You are bound to experience a lot of setbacks, but you have to continue focusing on your goal. If it means you have to move, do it, even if it is a parallel move and not necessarily upwards.
From a growth perspective, that is always good, and it gives you a better understanding of the industry and the value chain as a whole. For example, I started at the end of the value chain with technical marketing, then I was part of the logistics team. In other words, I moved backwards in the iron ore value chain production as well as processing. If you work hard and stay focused, you will reach your goals. It is important that you persevere. Furthermore, you have to start building networks in the industry; your work needs to be known and respected, and you have to add value whatever you do.
Mining has not always been successful in attracting young people. How do we make mining cool again?
It is not that difficult. I really do think it is already becoming a ‘cool space’ to work in. New technologies are making it impossible for young people to ignore mining. Mines are not the high-risk, physically tough environments they used to be. Artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things are bound to change mining and make it a ‘supercool’ place to work in. And it will become even more ‘cool’ in future with autonomous vehicles and technologies. It is all very exciting; there are so much development and research, and innovative technologies out there.
Mandlakazi, where to from here for you, what about your future?
Well, I have options. I can target the general manager role or decide to go back into marketing. Maybe even head up the Technical Marketing Department, or alternatively I can decide to move into sales and logistics. From there I might be looking at an executive role. The sky is really the limit.
In a nutshell, what are the differences between Sishen and Kolomela in terms of processing and technology?
Kolomela produces direct shipping ore, so there is hardly any processing thereof. The ore is crushed, screened, and then you have the product.
The real difference between the plants is in the technology they use. Kolomela is maybe more advanced. It is also the newer plant of the two. Kolomela boasts advanced process controls, whereas at Sishen, they are still in the process of developing the infrastructure.
In September, Kolomela will start reclaiming onto trains autonomously from a control room. Sishen does not have that capability yet.
From a processing perspective, we still need to characterise the run of mine at Kolomela, because the mine was never defined to execute ultra-high dense media separation (UHDMS).
How does the product of the two mines differ?
Kolomela’s product portfolio is the same as Sishen’s. The difference is that the process at Kolomela is not as complex as at Sishen. At Kolomela, the product is crushed into a saleable product and loaded.
What made you move to Kolomela?
It was a growth opportunity that opened up at Kolomela.
Are you going to be based at Kolomela?
I am now based in Postmasburg. I moved there from Kathu recently, which is about 90km away.
As a miner, you have to work in rather remote areas and live in small towns, which could be a challenge for some people. How do you deal with these challenges?
In 2002, when I moved to Kathu, for example, they did not have the facilities they have today, and that is relevant in most small towns around the country. The mining houses are also focusing on building recreational facilities and schools. So, if you intend starting a family, it makes the lifestyle more attractive there.
There is normally a lot of opportunity for development in these remote regions, and you have an opportunity to influence the local communities. Kumba makes it very comfortable for their employees and place a lot of emphasis on a balanced lifestyle.
You obviously have to be open-minded. If you are adventurous and like doing something different, this is for you. If you like the city life and want to be in the city, it is simple: don’t go. But if you want to engage more with nature and communities, then the remote areas would work for you. You also have an opportunity to save money.
What should men in the mining industry keep in mind when engaging with women?
The worst thing for me was that men, in the past, often disregarded me in a meeting, for example. But not all men are like that, and things have definitely changed over the years.
We are not all the same and we are also not all progressive in our thinking. Some choose to be stuck in the past. It may be a very small percentage, but you do engage with these people from time to time. It happens everywhere in life. Some people just refuse to progress, but we have to ignore them and just move on really.
What should men do better to engage; what should they do to provide opportunities?
They should move beyond seeing gender. That’s the basics. I should not be seen as a woman, but as a person that can add value to their lives. And they have to respect women the same as what they respect their male counterparts; it is as simple as that. We need to be judged on merit, not on gender. If I am good, I am good whether I am a woman or a male or black or white. The colour or gender should not matter, so let us look beyond that and treat each other as equals.