In a notable stride towards gender inclusivity in the diamond industry, De Beers Sightholder Sales South Africa’s Simangele Soni has become the first woman to occupy a senior operations manager role in the organisation.
Appointed on March 1, Soni is now part of the sorting, valuation and sales business, or the midstream business, of De Beers.
She tells Mining Weekly that the midstream business of De Beers South Africa as a whole boasts a 50% female workforce, making it less male-dominated than where she held her previous job, in upstream, also known as the mining side of the business.
However, Soni highlights that there is not similar equity at leadership level in the mining industry’s midstream sector.
Therefore, De Beers is pursuing equity in employment for senior management roles, she notes, adding that, while gender inclusivity has always been a core focus for the company, this has become heightened of late, with De Beers CEO Bruce Cleaver joining the United Nations Women’s HeForShe solidarity campaign for gender equality in September 2017.
This position is a notable transition for Soni, who moves from her role as senior processing engineer at De Beers Consolidated Mines (DBCM) to operations manager, where she is responsible for ensuring that diamonds are sorted and valued accurately (quality), and that the company meets the deadlines for selling diamonds (on time delivery).
“Most importantly, I am responsible for the health and safety of our people at midstream South Africa, with 90 people reporting to me,” she elaborates.
She deems this move as “challenging, but exciting”, as it presents an opportunity to instil elements of her process mindset into the midstream business and combine this with the intrinsic skills set of sorting, in which De Beers is a “leader”. This shift is significant for Soni as she is moving from the mining environment where processes are largely driven by equipment performance, run by foremen, to a more office-based environment where people deliver product, she adds.
Moreover, as De Beers’ sorting operation in Kimberley, in the Northern Cape, is set to receive new sorting technology, Soni will be responsible for acclimatising the team to this, and ensuring adoption and smooth transitioning in the next few years. “This will require a mental shift and cultural shift in some cases,” she says.
Soni says she was “fortunate” in that, when she joined midstream in an acting capacity, the senior VP of the operation at the time was a woman. Soni believes that this eased her transition, with this also representing the first step towards a significant transition towards gender equality in the workplace.
Soni’s 19-year relationship with De Beers started when she was 16, when she received a bursary to study chemical engineering. The 19 years include doing vacation work at De Beers mines during holidays and 14 years post qualifying.
Soni started her working career with De Beers in 2004 as a metallurgist in training. She acclaims that, during the two years of this training, she was privileged to have completed her master’s degree in management. The degree was facilitated by a partnership programme between De Beers, the then Department of Minerals and Energy and the Da Vinci Institute, to empower women in mining.
In 2006, Soni moved to De Beers’ Venetia diamond mine, in Limpopo, as a senior plant metallurgist – one level above a metallurgist in training – where she was responsible for plant optimisation.
Following this, she was a processing engineer, where she had plant project management responsibilities, plant management system utilisation and assurance.
In 2008, Soni was appointed as a section head at Venetia, where she was responsible for the daily and yearly deliverables of production, the safety of people in her section, and the environmental management and budgets of her section.
She indicates that this was her most challenging role, as this entailed having to deal with mostly male colleagues, and male foremen reporting to her; however, it also presented the biggest opportunity for growth, for which she is grateful.
Soni left Venetia at the end of 2009 to join corporate business as a technical assistant to the then CEO of DBCM. Her role entailed managing the CEO’s office and streamlining in-house communications and reporting.
She notes that her time in this role coincided with an industry downturn and leadership changes at De Beers. “However, I was very fortunate to be part of the team, led by the DBCM CFO who later became the CEO, that worked on a strategy to make a profit of R1.5-billion from a loss, which the company actually achieved by the end of 2010.”
In mid-2011, Soni joined the Venetia underground project as a senior process engineer, where she was responsible for delivering a solution for the processing plant to ensure production of diamonds beyond 2043.
Following a three-year stint in this role, Soni was appointed as senior ore-processing engineer responsible for technical guidance and assurance of DBCM processing plants – the last role she occupied before her promotion this year.
“The biggest success for me over the years has been to be a living example of the transformation in the mining industry. I think the future is great for women in mining, if they are willing to stay the course,” Soni concludes.