06 Aug Interview with Thabile Makgala
Executive: Eastern Limb, Implats | Chairperson: Women in Mining SA
Thabile holds a BSc (cum laude) in mining engineering from the University of the Witwatersrand and an MBA from the Stellenbosch Business School. She is an executive at the world’s third-largest platinum miner, Implats, where she oversees two operations situated on the Eastern Limb of the Bushveld Igneous. Implats’s main activities are mining, processing, refining, and marketing of platinum-group metals. She is also the chairperson of Women in Mining South Africa (WiMSA), a non-profit organisation established in 2010 to support and guide the personal growth, leadership, and career development of women in the South African mining industry through sponsorships and mentoring by volunteers.
Tell us your story — how did you get to where you are now?
I was born and bred in KZN; my mother was a single parent who played an important role in raising my brother and me. I went to an all-girls school in Durban, and, during my matric year, my mom expressed her concerns that, as a single parent on a nurse’s salary, she was under a lot of pressure and simply could not afford my university fees, as she also had my brother to take care of. She had given me a private school education on a nurse’s salary, so I understood and was very appreciative of the sacrifices she had made. I said, “No, that’s fine, I’m happy. I’ll be able to look after myself.”
It was then that I started exploring various opportunities. I was very interested in engineering in general, but, when I delved into the discipline of mining engineering, I realised that only a small number of women were employed in the mining industry, especially in deep-level mines, and discovered that mining companies were offering bursaries. My curiosity and my research overlapped at some stage, and there I was, applying for bursaries in mining. Many companies responded, but Gold Fields was the first, and I accepted the offer.
Gold Fields, at the time, required a year’s worth of on-the-ground training before going to university. So, when they offered that to me, I went and worked underground for a year, which is where my passion for mining was ignited.
Due to my ignorance, I was not aware that there were no women in the mining operation I was working at — I was the first underground female employee. Today, the representation of women in the mining industry is still insufficient. The Mining Charter stipulated a target of 10% women in mining years ago, and the entire industry is now at only 12%. We want to see more; we want to see at least 30% women in mining by 2025. I think my passion and the realisation that there is still so much that needs to be done in the mining industry are what really motivated me and led to this path of being an executive in mining.
What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in getting to where you are now?
I have faced numerous challenges, from day one, as the first female employee underground. The biggest challenges revolved around infrastructure. For example, when I entered the industry, there were no ablution facilities for women, and the PPE (personal protective equipment) was not designed for women. I was swimming in the men’s overalls! The policies also did not support women in mining.
Suddenly, when more women were entering the industry and I started a family, I noticed the lack of policies around pregnancy. What happens when women want to start families? We’re working on policies now, but we’re not there yet.
There are also biases and stereotypes. You are judged on your capability before you’re even given the opportunity to show them otherwise. It can be quite damaging, because it deprives you of opportunities that were offered to your male counterparts. You are not offered the same opportunities because people think on your behalf. They say, “Oh, no, she’s female, definitely won’t be able to make it, so let’s not even bother.”
Personal biases, culture that is slow to accept change, and the acceptance that women can contribute to the mining industry are still some of the challenges. Even as an executive, you’re dealing with male colleagues who have difficulty embracing diversity and being inclusive. As a woman, you need to work three times as hard as your male counterparts. Mediocrity is not an option, because there is so much at stake. It’s not just about me, it’s about all the women in the industry and those wanting to join the industry.
Looking back on your career and life, what advice would you give your younger self and other young women in South Africa?
You have to back yourself. You need to believe, believe, believe in yourself and your capabilities, because, if you don’t, believe you me, everyone else is going to allow you to exit the mining industry, which is not what we want for our female engineers.
Secondly, dare to dream, because the comfort zone is definitely not an option. So many times, you find yourself in a position that is comfortable, and you don’t want to go to the next position. You’ve got to push and get out of that comfort zone.
Another thing I’d tell my younger self is to have a clear vision of what you want in your career, because you can easily get side-tracked and not realise your full potential. This is particularly true for women in mining; because of all the obstacles you encounter, you often have difficulty crafting a clear path. There were times when I found myself losing track, but I could quickly see that that was not the direction I should be taking, because I knew where I wanted to go. Clarity earlier on does help you with your career advancement.
Another piece of advice I’d give is to ignore the noise. As a female in a male-dominated space, there are so many people telling you that you won’t be able to achieve and it cannot be done. I encountered a lot of those, and sometimes you actually start doubting yourself. The noise is always there, and it can easily distract you, but you need to ignore it.
The last piece of advice I’d give is to never underestimate the importance of mentors and sponsors. Those are the people who advocate on your behalf. Those are the people who are able to catapult your career. You need to persist until you find the right mentor and sponsor. It was only later in my career that I found the right ones, and it made a world of difference. I often wonder, if I had found them earlier on in my career, where I would be now. They are sounding boards when you sometimes really just want to give up and require advice.
What are you most proud of in your career and personal life?
It’s undoubtedly the fact that I’ve stayed the course in mining. There were so many times when I wanted to give up. I wondered, “Really, is this what I went to varsity to study for?” It’s just an uphill battle, and it continues to be an uphill battle. I think you have to you demonstrate that it’s possible. You have to demonstrate to everyone, saying, “Ladies, if you want to enter mining — in fact, if you want to do anything in your life — it is possible.” You so often encounter challenges and want to give up. Having been able to wake up the following day and still persist and proceed for nearly twenty years in mining, that is something that I am really proud of.
What is your wish for gender equality and women in South Africa?
In South Africa, women need to be provided with equal opportunities, so that they too can realise their potential, which we are yet to be afforded. In addition, when you look at the analyses, at the trends, women are still underpaid. We can do the same job, at the same organisation, and pay parity is still not there.
There needs to come a point where we are all recognised for the contribution that we bring to the table and subsequently remunerated equally for our contribution.
Finally, and most importantly (and I think the COVID pandemic has also highlighted this, which has been very unfortunate), we need safe environments for women, both at home and in the workplace. More needs to be done by government and civil society to protect women. COVID has exacerbated gender-based violence, because of additional stresses, and women are not being protected. Policies need to properly protect us in the workplace, and laws need to properly protect us in the home.