Female miners are battling to make their mark in the mining sector, and face a daily war for their rights underground.
Deep underground, where huge conveyer belts haul rocks to the surface, 33-year-old mother of two Bernice Motsieloa represents the quiet revolution transforming the macho culture of South African mining.
Motsieloa is a shift supervisor at Anglo American’s Bathopele platinum mine – one of several thousand female miners employed in a difficult and often dangerous environment traditionally dominated by men.
Despite an apartheid-era ban on women working underground only being lifted in 1996, 15 percent of all employees in the mining sector are now female, exceeding the government’s own target of 10 percent. But reports of sexual harassment are common, and some retired miners say female miners face pressure to offer sexual favours to their male colleagues.
Motsieloa said she has never suffered physical violence since first going down the pits in 2002 doing manual labour in a gold mine, though she vividly recalls the verbal abuse she endured. “It was hard. We were openly called names by our male colleagues who told us ‘this is not your place’,” she told AFP.
“At first it was not easy, I wanted to quit. We had to put up with men who were not used to working with women.”
A few kilometres from the Bathopele mine, a female worker was raped and killed underground in another Anglo American Platinum mine in 2012. A blood-stained stone was left next to her body.
Three months ago, another female worker was raped in the changing rooms at a different mine also owned by the firm, but escaped with her life.
“I was shocked and did not trust this environment anymore… Working alone, what if this happens?” said Motsieloa, who is always in radio contact with the control room at surface level.
“It really had an effect on me. I was thinking, ‘what if someone just shows up?’“
Whatever the challenges, Motsieloa exudes authority as leader of her mainly-male team of 22 workers, and she dismisses any suggestion she might consider a change in profession.
“For me, mining was not my first choice, but I ended up doing it,” she said. “Now I love it. For me, being underground is like being in an office.”
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