The mines are slowly opening up to the idea of employing women
Smangele Mngomezulu worked for 15 years at South African mining giant Anglo American, but apartheid-era laws banned her from donning a hard hat and shovelling ore.
Now, more than a decade after the collapse of race laws, she heads down into sweltering underground mines as the owner of her own company, with Anglo as one of her customers.
Women such as Mngomezulu are still rare, despite the scrapping of apartheid-era laws prohibiting women from working in mines and government demands that companies change their attitude towards employing women.
Women still make up only a fraction of the mining workforce and only a handful have made it into top positions in South Africa, the world's biggest producer of gold and platinum.
"For heaven's sake, this is totally unacceptable," said Bridgette Radebe, who heads both her own junior mining firm and an organisation representing small mining companies.
"The opportunities are there but women are not given the opportunities because there's a lot of resistance," she said.
South Africa's post-apartheid constitution enshrines the doctrine of equality of the sexes and President Thabo Mbeki pays more than lip service to this - his cabinet of 30 includes 12 women.
But some attitudes linger from the apartheid era, when black women suffered a double handicap - restricted by both their gender and race.
Women face a multitude of obstacles in the mining sector, ranging from resistance from male workers to their own perceptions about mining.
But they could benefit from the country's mining charter, which seeks to give more ownership to the black majority under the black economic empowerment plan.
Employment of women has crept higher as mining companies scramble to meet the government requirement that they have 10percent of jobs filled by women by 2009.
Under the charter, companies run the risk of losing their licences if they fail to comply with a set of targets, which includes boosting ownership by blacks.
The early mining industry was built on back-breaking labour by poorly paid black men, who were prohibited from rising to skilled and professional posts. A smattering of women were relegated to low-level posts such as clerks.
When Mngomezulu, now general secretary of the South African Women in Mining Association, worked in the library of Anglo American during the apartheid era, she never thought of heading into the mines.
"At the time, I never dreamt it would ever happen - that black people would actually have businesses at the mine," she said. "As a woman in those days, I could never ever think of being involved in mining."
Now she sometimes struggles to convince women that the mining sector, one of the nation's biggest employers, offers them opportunities.
"In our culture, a person who was working at the mines was a person who was not educated. Our mothers warned us: 'If you don't want to go to school, you'll end up in the mines'."
Mngomezulu's small business, Nesa Mining, employs 10 women who use machines like vacuum cleaners to sweep up metal-bearing material left behind in old mining areas.
Women miners sometimes face a less-than-welcoming reception from men.
"Some of the guys really give them hell. They weren't too happy about it," said Harmony Gold official Philip Kotze.
"But I think women are great: they're more organised than us and more disciplined. They don't go out drinking on Friday."
Government statistics show that women made up 3,5percent of a mining workforce of 443300 last year, compared to 2,1percent in 1994.
Some companies are moving faster than others.
Harmony chief executive Bernard Swanepoel said recently that his company, the world's fifth-biggest gold producer, had boosted numbers of women to about 8percent of the workforce.
About 35 percent of Harmony's senior managers are blacks, women or others oppressed under apartheid. The company's financial director is a black woman, Nomfundo Qangule.
Radebe, who heads coal and platinum company Mmakau Mining, said women should agitate to move into mining companies' boardrooms, or should start their own companies.
At a recent conference, she cited a 2004 survey that showed four black women were non-executive board members of mining companies whereas about a third of women in the sector worked as clerks.
"Look at how many women are in the cabinet and then look at our [mining companies'] boards and it's nil - there is not a single woman who is an executive director and that has to stop.
"The men are the ones who are running these boards, the men are the ones who own these companies. Maybe if we start owning them things would start to change," Radebe said.- Reuters