Mining in focus: Secrets of an underground sisterhood

There is a clear inability to fully understand the identities of female mine workers in an underground context. Recent research by Dr Asanda Benya provides one of the best-yet accounts of this complex subject, writes Nicola Theunissen.

M TAU LEKOA MINING 1 NW ZA 2011 09 03 LL 055
More and more women entered mines as underground workers after 1994 and today, an estimated 1 837 women are employed underground.
Image credit: Leon Louw

I vividly remember my first crawl in a stope. I was a third-year student doing holiday work for Mponeng’s Communications Department. In the changeroom, before our plunge, I agonised over the holes on the sides of my overalls, how the heavy battery pack hurt my hip bones, and how I might trip in my oversized gumboots.

Shaking down a chain ladder, I kept my fear to myself, barely containing the onset of a panic attack in the depths of the Witwatersrand’s narrow reefs.

The experience etched my first understanding of the marvels and the mechanical genius of underground gold mining. It also made me grasp, if only partially, what it took to daily do a 3km drop in an overcrowded cage, considering the exhaustion, muscle ache, extreme heat, and prospect of injury and death that came with the territory.

I framed my perspective of underground mining solely from the notion that “this must be incredibly tough for men”. Granted, it was 2002 and female mine workers were still a sparse minority then.

– Nicola Theunissen, 2017

High-level discussion panels at mining and sustainability conferences often and eagerly discuss the women-in-mining phenomenon. All sides of the spectrum, from academics to mine executives, have their say about the challenges and the opportunities.

The topic unleashes layered viewpoints from both a social theory and a business perspective. However, only one group can speak with authority about the challenges and the opportunities: the women who do the work daily.

Dr Asanda Benya has contributed to one of South Africa’s most comprehensive studies in this field, adding a rich body of knowledge to a highly unexplored subject. Her PhD thesis from Wits, Women in mining: occupational culture and gendered identities in the making,used ethnography and participant observation to traverse the mining sector’s complex world of gender identity.

“For ten and a half months, between 2011 and 2012, I worked in the mines and lived with mine workers. During this period, I completely submerged myself into the world of mine workers to get an in-depth understanding of the ways they understand themselves and navigate the masculine mining world,” she says.

The research aimed to describe how women view themselves within an occupation traditionally characterised by gender exclusion.

Benya is a qualified winch operator. For her research, she worked in this position as well as a malayisha (general labourer) and pikinini (informal assistant for two female miners). She worked primarily in platinum and chrome operations that deployed conventional and mechanised methods.


Apartheid excluded all women from underground work and reserved low-skilled underground jobs mostly for black men. The Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act of 2002 (MPRDA) and the Mining Charter aimed to redress this historic disparity.

Chamber of Mines data show that women in mining grew from 11 400 in 2002 to 57 800 in 2015/2016. The current 13% female representation exceeds Mining Charter targets.

According to Benya, 2 098 female workers are currently physically working in South African mines. Of the 2 098, 15 white and 246 black women are employed on the surface in opencast mines, while no white female workers are employed underground. In contrast, 1 837 black women have decided to earn their living by working below the surface.

“The entrance of women into South African mines from 2004, and their appointment into positions previously exclusively reserved for men, is a significant challenge and a disruption to masculine subjectivities and the occupational culture,” writes Benya.

This article explores some of the challenges that are based on Benya’s findings, which formalises four female mining identities: mafazi, moneymakers, real mafazi, and madoda straight (see the textbox).

M TAU LEKOA 2 NW ZA 2011 09 03 LL 002
Underground mining jobs historically were reserved for male workers, and the changerooms at most mines are still not ‘women friendly’.
Image credit: Leon Louw


The challenges faced by women in underground mines cannot be explored without looking at the physical difficulties and safety risks involved.

For ethical clearance as researcher, Benya had to obtain cover for death, disability, and medical expenses. “I was soon reminded of the indiscriminate ways in which rocks fall, winch ropes snap, or scrapers mistakenly scooping out people alive.”

Rockfall does not discriminate against gender, as Benya points out, but women face additional threats to their safety and well-being. She states that a number of women were raped and killed underground at other mines during her fieldwork.

She has been a victim of sexual harassment herself, but states that “While I witnessed and experienced sexual harassment often, it was never threatening to the point where I feared I would be raped or killed.”

MM Mintek mine excursion NW ZA 2011 10 20 Leon Louw 1 075
MM Mintek mine excursion NW ZA 2011 10 20 Leon Louw 1 019
Although the number of women employed in high-skilled jobs, such as chemical engineers and geologists, has increased exponentially, only 1 837 women are currently working in low-paid, unskilled jobs in the underground mines of South Africa.
Image credit: Leon Louw

Although sexual harassment remains a rife challenge, she highlights that it is often not understood within traditional definitions. “Sometimes what I thought was sexual harassment was not seen that way by the women it was directed at.”

Similar to the dilemma of female soldiers, responding and speaking out against harassment has consequences: saying nothing perpetuates the abuse; speaking out leads to being picked on and hostility. Women often respond by ignoring it and keeping quiet.


The mining sector upholds the male body shape — strong, robust, muscular — as the normalised standard. Benya devotes a substantial portion of her research to this embodiment.

In the interviews, women describe how their bodies change and how PPE further adds to this process. “Workers reported that once they wear the PPE, they stop being themselves — they become ‘alert’, ‘rough’, and ‘don’t care’,” writes Benya. One interviewee explains how she often swears when wearing overalls and a hard hat, which she does not do otherwise.

Hard hats symbolise the transition into hardy mine workers and so does underwear. “You cannot wear the same underwear on surface and underground,” the women reveal in interviews. Underground shifts imply switching from very ragged underwear, called mgodi, to feminine ‘lacy’ underwear. This untold code among female mine workers uncovers what Benya describes as a way women distance and mark their feminine bodies from their underground bodies.

The process of workers monitoring each other’s bodies, including hands, arms, size, and body fat percentage, is a “profoundly gendered process”, she writes. It allows the mine and fellow workers to “classify discipline and produce a mining body”.

“For example, women’s bodies could be fit and firm, but if their hands did not resemble those associated with mining hands, the whole body was rejected and treated as non-ideal. Male bodies, on the other hand, were presumed ideal and thus not subjected to the same disciplinary power as women,” Benya says.


The reality of female mine workers cannot be separated from their larger role in society, where they have to reconcile their domestic roles as mothers and wives with their workplace identities as underground miners.

The women in Benya’s interviews were, in most cases, the main breadwinners, directly supporting more than one household — sometimes as many as eight to 14 people.

She gives biographical accounts of some women’s stories, demonstrating the struggles of finding identity:

  • Tee was able to leave a life of domestic violence behind when she found alternative income through mining; a job that saved her. “I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to eat or wear ... I don’t have to depend on boyfriends,” is Tee’s portrayal of a world underground.
  • Bonang and Maria have different stories. They are ashamed of having to work as malayishas, but are confronted with the otherwise limited options in South Africa’s frail economy.
  • Katlego, who is respected by her mining team, is mocked by her in-laws because she does not have children.

Most female mine workers were from families and communities where the unemployment rate is high. Their financial responsibilities outweighed their earnings and, as a result, they often had to supplement their income by selling Tupperware or beauty products.


In a similar current study, Sean Jones, managing director of the Artisan Training Institute (ATI), aims to understand what triggers subtle and explicit discrimination towards women in traditionally segregated occupations. Like Benya, he is basing his study on underground mining in South Africa.

Sean Jones
Sean Jones, MD of the Artisan Training Institute, is conducting a PhD study into the triggers of subtle and explicit discrimination towards women in traditionally segregated occupations. He believes upskilling to artisan level, for example, is important to retain the skills of female workers. Image credit: Artisan Training Institute

“Asanda’s research highlights how women are prepared to experience the hardships associated with underground mining, in an effort to dig themselves out of poverty. This important contribution also helps mines inform critically needed policy and practices to secure the future of women in mining,” says Jones.




  • Emphasises femininity that exaggerates femaleness/girlishness.
  • Seen as ‘good and obedient’ women and in return, men willingly work for them.
  • Adopts role of caretaker, by looking after men’s physical needs, for example bringing them water.
  • Allows and encourages views and attitudes that label them feminine, fragile, and in need of help and protection from men.
  • Ironically, their presence and insistence on being underground, instead of on surface, challenges the notion that underground is solely men’s territory.


  •  Do not practice gender according to underground expectations and challenge masculinity.
  • Appear to reject ‘rules of behaviour’.
  • Unlike the mafazi, they prefer to work on surface.
  • Considered lazy and opinionated and their performances of gender are seen by men and other women as subversive.
  • Tend to be relationally and spatially alienated from their teams.

Real mafazi

  • Known to be hard-working.
  • Involved in ‘real’ mine work underground and not ‘domestic’ work like mafazi or refusing work like moneymakers.
  • Engage in mine work on their terms as female workers and not as male mine workers.
  • Challenge notion that only men and masculine workers can do mine work and be productive.
  • Seen by their co-workers as ‘strong women’.

Madoda straight

  • Referred to as madoda straight (real men), because their gender performances resemble ‘female masculinities’.
  • Viewed by others and themselves as ‘real’ mine workers who can productively and convincingly mimic (masculine) miners.
  • View femininity as antithetical to mining and productivity and, therefore, distance themselves from it.

Source: Women in mining: occupational culture and gendered identities in the making by Dr Asanda Benya.

As women progress to higher level skilled positions as artisans, for example, it will become increasingly important to retain their skills in the workplace. “Understanding the gendered challenges highlighted by research in real-world settings is key to retaining these valuable skills,” he concludes.

A female loco driver at Tau Lekoa Mine on the West Rand.
Image credit: Leon Louw

Since my own underground encounter, I have been happy to learn that overalls are now hole-free, designed for the ‘female shape’, and gumboots come in small sizes. Although sartorial improvements go a long way in addressing some difficulties, the sector needs to continue their focus on understanding the evolution of women’s roles in the underground workspace.


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One of the major advantages of the EnviroLAV is that it provides gender-specific, private toilet facilities for women in mining; something that until now has been severely lacking in the industry. Women constitute over 11% of Africa’s operational mine workforce but continue to face significant challenges on a daily basis. Many mine sites currently lack clean and secure sanitation facilities with adequate waste management processes. The EnviroLAV provides a revolutionary solution to this problem.

The EnviroLAV’s structure consists of lockable latrine facilities mounted on top of a miniature biological treatment plant, allowing for complete privacy during use. The system utilises bacteria and enzymes that anaerobically break down waste. MineARC has combined this biotechnology with compressed air-driven aerobic effects, resulting in a system that further reduces waste to microscopic carbonaceous particles that, after evaporating, leave minimal remaining residue.

MineARC has developed three EnviroLAV options. The Standard EnviroLAV is designed with security for women in mind, with plenty of room to hang PPE, excellent lighting, and a sterile hand washing facility using MineARC’s own EnviroWASH hand sanitising solution. Other options include a dual toilet with the option of dedicated male and female facilities, as well as a compact model, featuring a smaller footprint for use when space is a limiting factor.

The EnviroLAV has options that allow the system to run on either electricity or mine air. The EnviroLAV boasts features and benefits that no other toilet in the industry can match. Connected to mine water or other freshwater supply, the toilet’s flushing system boasts low water usage and MineARC’s own environmentally friendly, biodegradable EnviroZYME solution for sanitised flushing. With the amount of contact between employees and waste matter vastly reduced compared to conventional portable toilets in the mining industry, the EnviroLAV makes for a far more hygienic working environment.



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