Up until the early 1970s, Kriel in Mpumalanga was just a dot on a map of South Africa’s northern region. The discovery of coalfields, however, brought the country’s state energy provider Eskom to the area, with the establishment of two power stations: Matla, which is one of the largest coal-fired plants in the world; and the Kriel complex.
Matla, meaning strength or power, is also the name of one of the largest mines in the area, owned by Exxaro. The colliery and power station are conjoined by a 10 km conveyor, which transports the mined coal on a 24/7 basis from storage silos to the power station. In addition, there is a 5 km conveyor from pit to silos. In total, up to around 3 800 tons of coal per hour can be transported between the two Matlas.
Exxaro has given the responsibility for cleaning and operating these conveyors to Dyrex, a local business owned and managed by Nomvuyo Ketiso, who not only grew up in the region but also worked underground for Exxaro as a conveyor-belt operator, before joining Dyrex as a BEE partner in 2013. Exxaro was not in the picture at that time, but Anglo American was. It was Anglo’s policy to ensure all its contractors were BEE compliant, which effectively forced Dyrex to change its exco. Not only did Ketiso’s joining ensure the continued longevity of the Anglo contract until the end of its run (at end-2014); it also secured the Exxaro contract, now in effect for three years.
The operation is no longer as small as it once was. Its current services range from involvement in cutting coal; underground roads; linings; reclaiming of underground cables; stone-dust barriers and installation thereof; ventilation structures and labour services, the latter of which largely relate to ‘doing all the dirty work’, says Ketiso. ‘Mines are obviously dirty places, yet they still need to be cleaned. Conveyors, a main driver of the Dyrex business, are particularly messy, given the spillages and the impact of coal dust on the machinery and the belt itself.’
There are also rules to follow, such as those defined in South Africa’s Mine Health and Safety Act regulation 8.9, which relates specifically to conveyor belts. By contracting Dyrex, Exxaro ensures its compliance with the act, which stipulates that the designated sections of a conveyor belt are never ‘cleaned when any of its parts are in motion’, and that ‘the take-up or belt tensioning device will not move when repairs, routine cleaning, cleaning of spillage, maintenance at the belt-tensioning device or belt splicing is carried out’. And most importantly, ‘only persons authorised to do so by the employer operate, maintain, clean and repair a conveyor-belt installation’, and any routine cleaning outside the designation areas of the conveyor part of the belt must be conducted in accordance with a procedure prepared and implemented for that purpose. ‘Conveyors are not cheap – especially those as long as the ones at Matla, but they are the most energy-efficient means of moving the coal,’ according to Ketiso. ‘Getting optimum life from the system is crucial to ensure no losses in production. In many respects the conveyor is the artery of a mine, so teams need to be pedantic with cleaning and comprehensively trained.’
Spillage is a cause for concern because, if not recovered, it can accumulate on or below the conveyor, which could cause the belt mechanism to slide and gouge rips in the belting material, particularly on the edges. ‘We also have to be mindful that commodities are experiencing a downturn at the moment, so mining houses do not have the financial resources to replace conveyor equipment, which again emphasises just how crucial it is that we maintain, clean and manage the operation of the conveyor at a very high level,’ she says.
On-site, Dyrex has two main crews – one for cleaning; and one for operations. Each comprises three teams of one supervisor and 17 operators or cleaners; one safety officer; and Ketiso. ‘Although I [work] mostly from a container-converted office on-site, I tend to visit our teams regularly – not because I need to supervise but because mining is in my blood, and there is nothing I enjoy more than being at the coalface.’
Considering there are four mines in the area, Dyrex has room for expansion. And it’s not only locally, regionally or countrywide that Ketiso intends to grow the company, but continentally too. She recently attended the 2019 Mining Indaba, where she recognised the potential of expansion into the DRC, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Guinea, Mozambique, Namibia and Botswana. ‘We’ve been looking into applying what we know to the gold, diamond and other precious metal mining sectors,’ she says. ‘What we don’t know, we will learn – which is exactly the formula I used when I built up Dyrex, and still applies today. You grow through knowledge acquisition and a complete understanding of the requirements of a contractor.’
Dyrex is flexible enough for expansion into foreign territories because Ketiso embraces local employment and the upliftment of communities. She explains that one of the greatest opportunities created by mining is the employment of previously unskilled labour. ‘Once you are in the mining system you are always trained – provided with certifications, licences and skills.’
This is something Exxaro excels at because, although Dyrex is a contractor, it enjoys the same benefits that apply to all Exxaro employees, which covers health and safety (including threats to miners such as HIV/Aids, TB and mining-related diseases). ‘The biggest benefit, in my opinion, is the upskilling and training provided to women and the youth,’ says Ketiso. ‘As one of the largest employers in small towns, mining operations have realised the importance of the platform they provide for women to be empowered. ‘Mining has always been considered an industry for the tough and rough. When I entered mining in 2007 at the age of 22, it was extremely difficult to deal with the stereotyping. Men had to teach women how to mine, and it wasn’t easy for either sex to adapt. But nothing prepares you more for a career in mining than being trained by highly experienced hard labourers whose focus on abiding by restrictions and safety is paramount.’
Ketiso applies the same rule of thumb with her teams at Dyrex. Once trained, staff (including the single mothers and youth she is devoted to employing) must apply themselves to the principles and policies of excellence and mining safety. ‘I don’t micro-manage because I trust my management teams to take charge and set their own goals. When there is a challenge, however, I am the first to step up and be part of the solution.’
Her solution to poverty within her community, for example, is to create more jobs. Given the surrounding territory, it’s not surprising that Ketiso is keen to own and operate a mine. ‘My team and I are realistic, however. We’ve been looking into small coal mining sites and have investigated venture capital for such a project. The opportunity will present itself and when it does, we will be ready to uplift and become an employer of note.
‘This is the only way we can release people’s potential and lessen poverty, of which we see too much in our local communities. Poverty takes away dignity. But when you work with individuals to uncover their value, they become dedicated, committed and goal-focused – traits that are honoured in the mining sector.’