Honouring the first woman mining boss

It is not easy to speak to Bridgette Radebe. She's methodical. Almost all work and no play. Prim and proper.

It is not easy to speak to Bridgette Radebe. She's methodical. Almost all work and no play. Prim and proper.

Three friendly faces later - one to usher you in, the other to offer mineral water and the last her dainty little PA - Radebe eventually emerges to shake hands in the boardroom of the plush Illovo offices of Mmakau Mining, the company she founded in 1989.

She's a beauty too but would rather the world were less interested in her looks, more in her ability as a businesswoman.

The beauty queen in the family was her sister Rosette, she says, a Miss World personality of yore. She'd go along to the glamorous functions, she recalls, but found the industry not serious enough.

"It is only now that modelling has come into a degree of seriousness."

Her preference was shadowing their father, black business pioneer Augustine Butana Chaane Motsepe, better known as ABC, into numerous battles with apartheid forces as they strove to limit African entrepreneurship.

It was in one such encounter with the authorities that the girl from Mmakau, a rural enclave in the Hartbeespoort Dam area, got her first whiff of mining riches.

Her people, the Bakgatla, were denied their rightful share of royalties "for mineral rights leased to a Canadian company".

Legend has it that they marched to the mine but were instead met with teargas, dogs and police guns.

She subsequently became a familiar face in areas where male domination was the norm. No bimbo, obviously. She recalls how one union leader in the mines at the time, Gwede Mantashe, painted her a graphic picture of what the men would do to her if she went down the shafts with them.

"I was in a mini-skirt," she laughs.

Years later, still using her father's name, she'd cause a stir when she inexplicably landed in Moria, the ZCC headquarters outside Polokwane, in former president Nelson Mandela's entourage.

But those who were convinced she had, to use her words, "something tangible to bring to the table" had met her years earlier when she worked alongside the likes of disgraced football administrator Abdul Bhamjee to try to run the professional soccer league in the 1980s.

She's been bringing tangibles to boardroom tables of mining houses across the globe ever since Mmakau's launch.

"From a contract miner, managing shafts and procuring for the large mining houses, the company graduated to ownership and development of its own mines in the early 1990s.

The group significantly broadened its skills and mining services base through the acquisition of a 36 percent shareholding in Shaft Sinkers, a world leader in shaft-sinking and underground construction."

Those who know Mmakau better attest to the fact that the company has interests in coal, platinum, gold, vanadium, uranium and mining services.

But if the frenzy preceding a mere newspaper interview at 269 Oxford Road is anything to go by, turning Mmakau "into one of Africa's most significant 100 percent black-owned mining companies" has not been a walk in the park.

It is nerve-racking, hard work!

We meet her three days after she'd won the prestigious Business Person of the Year Award from the Global Foundation for Democracy.

The award was given to her in recognition of her heroic status and being "a born entrepreneur who defied legislation to build her own successful mining group".

It says further that she is "an economic activist, an agent of transformation and a pioneer of change who has played a key role in changing exclusionary mining legislation in South Africa and who pioneered the implementation of empowerment mining models in Africa and internationally".

It is this correspondence the PA was chastised for not disseminating much earlier to anyone begging an audience with Radebe.

Mining is her life, she says.

"My life is work-oriented. I don't even see it as work. That's why it is difficult for my workers to cope.

"I don't sleep."

As she tallies the numbers, it emerges her efforts have given work to no less than 10000 people.

And this can only come of the sweat from the brow of a person sure in their own standing, not so-and-so's wife, or sister.

Radebe is the sister of billionaire businessman Patrice Motsepe, who is also, through his African Rainbow Minerals, a force to reckon with in mining.

She's the sister-in-law of another well-heeled business tycoon, Cyril Ramaphosa.

She is married to transport minister Jeff Radebe.

She applies her mind to the question whether or not she's not living under the collective shadow of the eminent men in her life.

She cites the example of how Lucky Dube and Yvonne Chaka Chaka both wondered how one could receive world acclaim but get not so much as a mention at home.

She's just back from Canada where she spoke to 20000 people on mining issues.

"I go all over the world advising governments," she says. She works with governments, mining chambers and other people who have seen her worth - not just her blood line.

With more than 20 years experience in mining, she's president of the South African Mining Development Association, the so-called junior mining chamber.

She's vice-chair of the board that advises the Minister of Minerals and Energy and sits on the board of Sappi.

All these did not come as a result of her affinity to a billionaire or two, or a government minister.

She's immensely grateful to her late parents, about whom she speaks very fondly.

It was growing up in their home that has allowed the Motsepe lass contact with her heroines; the late Dombolo Tshabalala and Marina Maponya in business, and the likes of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the late Adelaide Tambo, the only person outside her home who used to call Radebe by her other name, Dikeledi.

Quiet time is spent at home with one-year-old daughter, Malaika. The nephews and nieces also take up much of her home time, she says.

Otherwise her biggest pleasure is going to the rural areas where Mmakau mines, "to listen to the women as they tell their stories".

More often than not the conversation would revolve around the women's philandering spouses. The latter would later lead her to talk about the HIV-Aids campaigns her company drives in the rural areas.

But she goes there too for "the soul food and traditional dances".

She goes to gym because "when those men take you underground with them you must be able to keep up".

She's reading The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs, one-time adviser to former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. Compassionate Capitalism, a book by Rich Devos, which Bono spoke highly of, is also on her side of the bed.

One hour after what was supposed to last no more than 30 minutes, she shakes hands - warmly, and is swallowed into the labyrinth of the Mmakau offices, off to another meeting.

l See page 16