Interview with Portia Malele

Portia Malele

Manager: Mine Technical Services, Sishen Mine, Anglo American Kumba Iron Ore

Portia is the manager of the Mine Technical Services Department of Anglo American’s Sishen mine, one of the largest open-pit mining operations in Africa. Anglo American is a leading supplier of high-quality iron ore to the global steel industry. Portia holds a bachelor’s degree in mining engineering from the University of Johannesburg and completed a post-graduate Diploma in Business Management and Administration at Stellenbosch University Business School. She obtained a Mine Managers Certificate of Competency in 2009. Prior to joining Sishen Mine, she was a Mine Manager at Sasol’s Twistdraai Colliery in Mpumalanga for five years, and won the Sasol Mining Super League for the best shaft at Thubelisha South Shaft in 2017 and 2018.  |  Linkedin

Tell us your story — how did you get to where you are now?

I got into mining through a graduate development programme at BHP Billiton Energy Coal SA (now South32), which was a three-year training programme specifically designed to induct graduates into the mining industry in preparation for later managerial roles. At the end of the programme, I was appointed in middle management, as a Production Mine Overseer, and was later promoted to Production Manager. In 2013, I joined Sasol Mining, where I was a Shaft Manager responsible for the day-to-day running of the shaft, including managing operators and artisans. One year later, I was promoted to Mine Manager at Sasol Mining, where I remained until early last year, when I joined Anglo American. I’m stationed at Sishen mine, which is part of Anglo American Kumba Iron Ore’s operations, where I joined as a Mine Manager responsible for Drill & Blast operations. I recently took over the role of Manager of the Mine Technical Services Department.

What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in getting to where you are now?

There have been two major challenges. One is adapting to a male-dominated environment, which I faced early in my career — having to manage a team that challenges you constantly. In that journey, you get to experience different types of people. In the mining industry, there are many people from all over Southern Africa. They come with different cultures and have different views about women, and some are not used to being led by females. At that point, there weren’t many women in the mining industry.

As I moved through different positions, I found that I was often one of the first women in that space or in that particular position, which gave me an opportunity to pave the way for other women in mining.

The second challenge I’ve had to go through was trying to maintain a work-life balance. In mining, you generally work longer hours than your average eight- or ten-hour shifts; you work, on average, 12- to 14-hour shifts, if not more, on a daily basis. This tends to take a toll on you, and can take over your life. In the mining industry, in most cases, you work in a mining town where everything revolves around the mine. Sometimes you don’t really see the impact on your personal life, because whether you are at work, or you go to the nearest supermarket, or you go to the dentist, you will always see your colleagues and you will always talk about the mine. I had to manage my work-life balance along the way. After a while, the mining life takes a bit of a toll on you, and you have to hit the reset button.

You have to be intentional about it. That’s something that I had to learn from other people who were in the same industry, from my mentors and coaches over the years, who had really successful careers. You have to be quite intentional in saying that, if you’re going to focus so hard on doing well in your career, you have to deliberately make time for family, friends, church, and yourself, or whatever it is you have to do. There won’t always be balance or time, but that’s what I had to learn to do. I could actually go home and not look at those additional emails — kind of prioritise my life and pick it up again early in the morning.

You have to strike a balance between the things that are important in your life. I had to be very deliberate, and I didn’t always get it right earlier in my career. About five or six years ago, I started finding a proper balance between work and personal life, and once I started seeing what balance worked for me, it gave me more energy to focus on both my career and personal life. They are both important and take up large parts of my life.

Looking back on your career and life, what advice would you give your younger self and other young women in South Africa?

Firstly, I would say, don’t take yourself too seriously. Mistakes are a way of learning, and you are bound to make wrong decisions. There have been many people who have come before you who have gone through the same or a similar journey and have experienced the same challenges, so it’s important to surround yourself with those people. They probably have a much better understanding of those challenges and can offer lots of guidance.

The second thing is, ask for help and assistance. Consult with your peers and mentors. When we get into a situation, a new position, for example, we tend to want to please. You want to do everything and show what you are capable of. Especially when you are a woman, you want to prove that you can do it, but, at the end of the day, a team will always outperform an individual. People will work with you when you show that you’re willing to listen to their views as well.

The third thing, which I did as a young person and would still advise my younger self to do, is keep the mentorship line open at all times. Have to have your mentors. They don’t have to be from the same industry or organisation, or even the same discipline, but they can be your soundboard all the time.

Finally, just have fun while you’re in it. It is okay to make mistakes. Oftentimes we are afraid to try things out because we fear failing. Just go ahead and try, do something, then apologise later. Life is too short to regret never trying anything. Just do it and have fun while you are learning.

What are you most proud of in your career and personal life?

The main thing that I am proud of is that I have been able to bring some young women up through the mining pipeline. Wherever I have been the first woman, I haven’t left without adding more women into the mix. Every single team I have led, I would get there and there would be one or no women. I would always try to get more women in the team.

I’ve always pushed the women-in-mining agenda, even at an operational level — not just looking at the number of women, but looking for women who are really interested in mining.

I’ve learned over the years that many women are willing to do it, they just need someone to give them a chance. I’ve never been disappointed by any female after appointing her in a specific position. Last year, when I came to Sishen, I was the first female manager in the mine’s history, but in six months’ time, I was able to appoint two female section managers in Drill and Blast, a level to which only one woman had ever been appointed. I am quite proud of this, and the results that are showing in them, as they also took over the baton and appointed the first-ever female Drill and Blast Engineer and Technician. The whole team is starting to look differently at women in mining.

What is your wish for gender equality and women in South Africa?

One thing I would wish for is that everyone would just understand that gender equality is a way of life. It shouldn’t be a project to increase the number of women or get people to change their minds. I wish gender equality would just be a normal thing that we all subscribe to.

The second thing I would wish for is that some of our cultural practices, across all races, could just start favouring, or at least supporting, women. Often, men, and sometimes women, hide behind ‘This is my culture’ as an excuse, or ‘This is just where I come from’. We need to rewrite the history and rewrite the way that we operate for our children and their children going forward. It is no longer acceptable to say, ‘Because you are a female, culturally, you must do XYZ’, but, at the same time, society doesn’t support or give you a better outcome in life as a woman.

Finally, I would just love to live in a place where women are not treated like objects, where they are not things that people can use or abuse. I wish women’s rights could be respected and that women would be treated fairly.

Women's Report 2020

In celebration of the 10th year of publication, the 2020 Women’s Report reflects on the rise of the black woman. Very little is written about black women’s workplace successes and wisdom. We address this discrepancy by celebrating black women’s excellence.