When Prianka Padayachee started working underground at Anglo American Coal’s Zibulo Colliery in Mpumalanga, men muttered: “What is this Indian woman doing down here?”
They stared at her blankly, asking: “Are you lost?”
She chuckles at the memory, saying she thinks she is the first Indian female graduate to be taken on by Anglo Coal to work underground.
Coal is an unstable field in which to work. Methane gas is released when it is cut. A spark can set off a fire instantly. Even a flash from a camera can create a spark.
“We cannot take a Fitbit, cellphones or a calculator underground because it is so sensitive,” explains Padayachee.
The metaphor, “a canary in a coal mine”, stems from the days when mine workers used to carry caged canaries underground as a means of advanced warning.
If there was any methane or carbon monoxide in the mine, the canary would die before gas reached levels hazardous to humans.
Padayachee, who has her government certificate – with merit – for rock breaking in a fiery classified mine such as coal, is a shift overseer at Coal SA’s Zibulo Colliery.
It is she who goes into a section before any mine workers do, to test for gas.
“Two days ago, I was waist deep in water in the mine. I never imagined I would be doing that,” says Padayachee, who is now a respected leader.
The mines remain open 24 hours a day, with workers doing 12-hour shifts.
Padayachee comes to Johannesburg for a few days’ break every three weeks.
“It is amazing how your body acclimatises because, yes, I suppose it is hell under earth – I have been down here when there have been fall-of-ground incidents. But I am so used to it now that it is almost homely,” she reflects.
“It has taken me two years to be able to say that. The smell of the coal, the oil, the diesel from the machines and the noise create a unique environment.”
Last year, the determined woman headed a project to implement a strategy to improve drill-and-blast operations at her mine.
She introduced a new blasting pattern on the day that the mine overseer was with her.
“The average advance of a blast into the coal at the time was 0.8 to 1 metre. I asked if I could charge the face using my blasting pattern. He agreed a bit dubiously, and on that day, the advance we achieved was 3 metres deep.”
He was astonished and told Padayachee that she “makes us look good”.
“I have been fortunate enough to work with amazingly supportive men,” she says.
Padayachee grew up in Lenasia South, “and as a little girl, I spent my days breaking things such as computers and TVs so I could learn how to put them together again. My dad taught me early on how to change our car’s oil and tyres.”
She loved geography at school and decided to study geology. “Anglo gave me a bursary and I moved into engineering, becoming the first person in my family to do so.”
Her sister, Veneshree, is an obstetrician and was a huge inspiration. Their mother died when the sisters were young, “and she took over”.
The engineer was elected chairperson of the Wits Mining School Council and was also awarded the SA Institute of Mining and Metallurgy Prestige Prize in the final year of her BSc.
“It is an age-old tradition at the mining school to get its past students – now often CEOs – to explain what mining is all about. We take students on tours of mines and they meet engineers, who explain the pros and cons of the industry.’
Padayachee is surprised that there are so few science, technology, engineering and maths students at university. “Women make up only 4% of the registered professional engineers in South Africa. We need more female mentors.”
In the little time Padayachee has to relax, she reads voraciously, goes to the gym and enjoys travelling.
She plans to do her master’s degree in engineering next year, followed by an MBA. Her ultimate goal is to become CEO of Anglo American.
The woman who was asked if she had “lost her way” down a mine has her path mapped out.
Little Black Book
Business tip: Always strive to be the inspiration that you needed when you were starting out.
Mentor: Wessel Wessels, a business improvement manager at Anglo American.
Books: Anything to do with history, and biographies – especially on Barack Obama, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Richard Branson.
Inspiration: My sister Veneshree, who encouraged me to go into a “boys only” field.
Wow! moment: Setting off a controlled blast at the coal face.
Life lesson: If your dreams don’t scare you, then they aren’t big enough