A gold miner works underground at ERPM in Boksburg. More women are making careers for themselves in mining.
JOHANESBURG - Mining is not for everybody. And up until the recent past, it was an industry closed off to women, but that is changing as more and more women seek to forge a career in the dangerous pits that are South Africa’s deep mines.

One such woman is Bukelwa Dwenya, an onsetter at Sibanye Mine in Rustenburg, who has been going into the belly of the earth every day for 13 years.

Residing in Bokamoso, Rustenburg, a stone’s throw away from the Khomani 2 Shaft where she works, the 37-year-old is responsible each day for sending miners down to a depth of 1100m in a cage. “I am responsible for taking workers down into the shaft to start their shift and take them out after the shift,” she said. “The eight-hour job is not stressful, but requires a lot of concentration.”

As onsetter, she travels down to the pit bottom and then liaises with the banksman above ground to co-ordinate the safe travel and loading and unloading of cages filled with miners.

She said despite the dangers associated with mining, great strides have been made to accommodate women and make the working environment more “woman friendly”.

“Our boots are light compared to men’s boots. We wear two-piece overalls, unlike the one-piece overall men wear. A lot has changed in the mines since 2008.”

All changed

Up until the 1990s, legislation meant that women were not permitted to work underground in South Africa. This changed when the South African Mining Charter introduced quotas urging mining companies to employ a 10percent female staff complement.

And while the numbers are still relatively small in one of the key sectors of the South African economy, there are those women like Dwenya carving careers for themselves and leaving lasting imprints on the country’s mineral-rich earth.

As with many other industries, the biggest challenge she has faced as a single parent and a breadwinner, has been juggling family and work roles. Over the years Dwenya has had to rely on the help of a stay-in nanny to look after her children during her night shifts, while she often works extremely long hours. However, she says with a smile: “The job is good and I love it.”

“The salary is even better,” she added. “My basic salary is around R20000 per month, excluding bonuses and other benefits.”

Dwenya says she is eager for more women to consider a career in mining, but warns that it is a hard slog and that regardless of the progressive changes in the industry, mining is still not for everyone.

The nature of her work sees her classified as an essential worker and therefore not allowed to go on strike.