Jim Armitage: Meet Daphne Mashile-Nkosi, an African pioneer who is (slowly) transforming the reputation of the mining industry

She is scarred by the environmental damage that generations of miners from the first world have left behind

Mention South Africa’s reputation for questionable deals to local mining entrepreneur Daphne Mashile-Nkosi and you get a quick answer. “Ah, yes, I know who you are talking about – the most famous person arrested in our country: Mark Thatcher.” Touché.

Successful African bosses are sick of constantly being preached to by the white First World about corruption. Ms Mashile-Nkosi, one of the continent’s most high profile businesswomen, is sicker than most.

“The only stories I ever see about African business when I look at the BBC, CNN – it’s corruption, corruption, corruption. Never the good news.

“The journalists should write about something else for a change, and stop pigeonholing everyone as corrupt.”

As I write this, South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, has just been ordered to repay some of the £14m of taxpayers’ money that was used to upgrade his private home. The country is a fair way down the league of Transparency International’s cleanest countries – 69th out of 176.

In short, I don’t hold with Ms Mashile-Nkosi’s view that corruption is not something we in the media should be banging on about.

However, there was plenty that we did agree on, as we chatted on the sidelines of the Africa CEO Forum in Geneva this week. That’s a good job, because I wouldn’t want to get on her wrong side. Now in her late fifties, this widow of an ANC hero jailed on Robben Island for his anti-apartheid activities has fought to become the first woman owner of a major mine in South.

She was named African CEO of the Year this week, in recognition of her Kalagadi manganese mine, which produces three million tons a year in the Northern Cape and employs around 3,000 people.

While her journey from poverty to millionairess is one of rags (literally) to riches, and her eyes have a steel reminiscent of Mr Thatcher’s late mum, she is warm and feminine. At first, she speaks quietly, maybe self-conscious at her slightly broken English. But soon her words flow, energetic and fluid.

She is here to advocate the development of a new kind of mining company for Africa: one which leaves sustainable communities behind once the minerals are gone. Heard it all before? Possibly, but in her voice, that of a black African who fought for freedom before even thinking about battling boardrooms, it seems so much more convincing than the glossy ethical brochures put out by the Rio Tintos of this world.

She is scarred, as is her country, by the poverty and environmental damage that generations of miners from the First World have left behind in Africa. “Take Kimberley, where diamonds were first mined in the 1800s,” she says. “The Kimberley Hole is still there. And the northern Cape [where Kimberley is situated] has 800,000 people – many of them very, very poor despite all that natural wealth.

“The model was wrong, so wrong. But there is a new model, a model that means as you make money as a business you need to plan and budget for social investment.”

That means building schools, roads, providing electricity and water. It means using local contractors for the infrastructure rather than big firms bussing workers in, and it means training local people to do the work where skills don’t exist. So an economy remains when the minerals have gone.

Most major mining companies are moving in this direction, under various global governance initiatives and pressure from Western governments.

But Ms Mashile-Nkosi is going a few steps further, most notably in her commitment to recruit and educate as many women as she can. “When it comes to this social model of working, women are just better at it. Figures show that when women earn, 90 per cent of it goes back into their society – their children’s education or the local community; so therefore it’s smart economics to look at women as a human resource.”

She returns to women’s prowess repeatedly, saying things such as: “Every job you give a woman puts a child through school;” and “Men play with dangerous things – car racing, bungee jumping. Women don’t do those things, we do things that will improve society.”

She adds: “As a grandmother, I love my children, but I love my grandchildren more.” Gulp. This could get awkward. Her son, Zakhele, is sitting with us, stony-faced, as we chat. “When they cry, I feel it more than when my own children do. His kids [nodding to Zakhele] mean more to me than him. I want to make a better world for them. That is sustainability.”

By the way, I didn’t feel too sorry for Zakhele. She is clearly proud of him, telling me (twice) that he’s a qualified doctor.

Ms Mashile-Nkosi says she now targets 50 per cent women staff in all her companies’ catering and cleaning contracts, preferring subcontractors run by women where possible. Underground, that’s not always possible, given that mining remains so male dominated, but even there it is improving, as more women study engineering and metallurgy.

What’s it like being a woman in such a macho industry? “It’s fraught with all sorts of obstacles, booby traps, limpet mines. You have to push open doors, people spit on you, but you lick your wounds like a dog and you go back again.”

Crikey. Her frown breaks into a laugh: “South African women: we’re strong, huh? We fought for liberation, we fought for our right to vote, to start businesses ... It gives you the tenacity, to know if you challenge you can change things.”

Now, about those courtroom scraps.

Case number one, the one that got us talking about corruption, saw a group of businessmen hijack her company by simply replacing her name on the directorship documents with theirs. Unbelievably, the authorities seem to have done little to help her, so she had to drag the matter all the way to the Supreme Court. When she won, the case helped bring about a substantial tightening up of company laws in the country.

“I was newly widowed, my husband had just passed on. I was an easy target. But they were unfortunate: I did have the guts to fight back.”

Next came ArcelorMittal, with whom she fought in court over the current manganese mining operation in which it is a shareholder.

“The crux of the problem there was: you have international companies coming in and saying this is how we’re doing it, but it does not always work. Their strategy and my strategy didn’t gel.”

Legal hostilities were eventually suspended, and now she’s in the process of raising funds to buy out ArcelorMittal. Lately the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, expressed concern that a public investment body was lending to her, due to her ANC connections: “Baseless and nefarious accusations” was her response.

Investment banks including Goldman Sachs have been trying to dazzle her with plans for a glorious stock market flotation in London and elsewhere. She’ll bear it in mind, she says, but not yet, and only if Jo’burg gets the listing first.

I ask what she thinks her husband, Stanley Nkosi, would feel about her achievements. He died in hospital after a throat operation in 2008.

She is in no doubt: “We celebrate at his grave, that here lies a man who came with a concept of putting the last first. And where he is today, he will be saying to us: ‘Yes. You are doing what we set out to do.’”

With that, she’s off, pushing through the crowd of expensively-suited tycoons to take her place on the conference stage. Carving her way through a man’s world.

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