Growing up in a rural village in South Africa, twins Makobo Simelane and Mabusha Nyelisani would spend hours playing the traditional storytelling game, maskitlana. It involves hitting rocks against each other in a role play, narrating a story and your friends gathering to hear a story. But for Makobo and Mabusha, their fascination was less with the story, and more with the rocks.
It was the start of a lifelong obsession.
Today, both Makobo and Mabusha are blazing a trail for young women in the mining industry. Both are geologists for Kumba Iron Ore, where they play key roles in optimising current production and extending the life of Kumba’s mines in the Northern Cape.
Bitten by the mining bug, both studied geology at Wits before embarking on their careers. Makobo knew early on that she wanted to be a geologist, while Mabusha briefly weighed up medicine and engineering before deciding to join her sister in the geology field. Both have since added MBAs to their impressive resumes as they look to build their careers.
“I was a curious child, and was always fascinated by how landscapes form. When I discovered the field of geology at high school, I knew immediately that was what I wanted to do – and once I got exposure to the mining industry, through Anglo American representatives who came to our school, my interest just grew from there,” says Makobo.
Until recently, Makobo worked as a project geologist at Sishen, heading an expansion project to ensure improvement in recoveries of low-grade ore, which was previously discarded as waste. The project has seen an improvement in recoveries of up to 75%, and increased the life of the Sishen mine by between 4-5 years. Since March, she’s been an acting section manager in the geology division.
Mabusha works as a project geologist at on one of Kumba’s exploration sites, where she manages the site and ensures her team’s safety as they gather information to support the establishment of a new mining operation. When it goes ahead, this operation will prolong Kumba’s operations in the region, with a range of socio-economic benefits for the province and the local communities.
“Having the privilege of managing an exploration project is teaching me a lot about leadership and management,” says Mabusha, whose career highlights to date saw her mentioned by name in Anglo American chief executive Mark Cutifani’s address at the 2020 Joburg Indaba.
Who are the twins’ role models? Both say their biggest role model is their mom. Mabusha is also inspired by the likes of Anglo American chair Nolitha Fakude, Gabisile Simelane, her mentor Morongwa Makgamato and Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg. “All these women leaders embody excellence in their work, inspire me to grow as a leader, and in turn positively impact young women,” she says.
At a personal level, Makobo takes inspiration from her parents and her life partner, who encourages her to dream bigger and believe in herself. Professionally, she looks up to her mentor at Kumba, Portia Malele, while she credits a former colleague, Kabelo Leeka, with helping shape her career path by helping her write a career plan. “And while I’ve never met Bonang Matheba, I love her work ethic and how she overcomes challenges, remaining humble and grounded at all times,” says Makobo.
What advice do these ambitious young women have for women and girls who are considering careers related to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)? “There’s no need to shy away from entering industries like mining, that are seen as male-dominated. There are challenges, but there’s a seat at the table for women. Find yourself a mentor, set yourself a vision, and go for it,” says Mabusha.
Makobo agrees: “Choose a career that you see yourself growing into and becoming a well-rounded professional and be a great success story. Do research about the different careers available, and make sure they align with your purpose. Then believe that you are capable, and can achieve anything you want to.”