Mpumi Zikalala, who was appointed deputy CEO of De Beers Consolidated Mines last year, assumed the position at a challenging time as the business was emerging from an emotional organisational redesign process, according to its CEO, Phillip Barton.
The company had focused on resizing the business in response to current market conditions. So, are diamonds losing their lustre?
Zikalala, tall, elegant and assured, sums up the proactive approach of De Beers when she quotes research it recently undertook to ascertain what diamonds mean to the millennial generation – one of its current target markets.
“It’s the social media-obsessed generation, yet what it values most is the element of ‘real’. For them, ‘real is rare’. And that is true for diamonds,” says Zikalala.
“They are natural, from the earth and were formed in a process that took a billion years. That appeals to millennials.”
She says the generation also warms to De Beers’ environmental policy.
“For each hectare we disturb in the mining process, we conserve six times more hectares through various conservation initiatives.”
It has nature reserves throughout South Africa and recently started relocating 200 elephants from the overpopulated Venetia Limpopo Reserve to Mozambican national parks.
Zikalala says the company is involved with the conservation of rhinos and elephants in Botswana, where De Beers is particularly active in mining diamonds.
She also raises the empowering work the company does in communities near its mines.
Zikalala has had 20 years of experience in the mining industry, having been general manager of two diamond mine operations and having led a diamond trading business for the company.
There were few women at the Cullinan diamond mine when she started there in 2001 after obtaining her BSc chemical engineering degree from the University of the Witwatersrand.
Business tip: Listen to everyone, from cleaners to executives.
Mentors: Primarily it was my parents who taught me to be excellent at every task, no matter how small it is.
Favourite book: Why Should Anybody be Led by You? by Robert Goffee and Gareth R Jones. It discusses on-going self-introspection. Also, What I Know for Sure by Oprah Winfrey.
Inspiration: When I’m told something is impossible, it inspires me to achieve it.
Wow! moment: Being appointed general manager at De Beers Kimberley Mines at the age of 27.
Life lesson: Change is the constant, so keep an open mind to the fact that it can be positive.
“People talk a lot about the negative elements of the male-dominated mining industry, but the men at the mine were really open to sharing their knowledge.
There was almost an element of them seeing a young girl developing in the industry and deciding: ‘Let’s educate her.’”
There were times over the years when she’d walk into a room or a meeting filled with men. There’d be a gasp, and then someone would comment: “You look young.”
Zikalala would smile confidently and business resumed.
She discusses the changes in the diamond mining industry, which has for years been called the “gentlemen’s industry” due to its mining at more shallow levels than other mines.
Zikalala says that, these days, most of the workforce has completed matric, and the main language spoken is English, “not Fanagalo”.
“There’s a sense of being listened to, so workers are proactive. They warn management when there are safety issues involved,” she says.
One of the key factors in mining is the goal of zero fatalities.
“Every executive wants each mine worker who comes to work to leave at the end of the day without any injury,” stresses Zikalala.
“Any fatality is one too many.”
She was senior vice-president for De Beers Sightholder Sales SA for five years, and was accountable for the business that sorts, values and sells all its production in South Africa.
Many of us assume that where there are diamonds, there is the temptation to steal. Zikalala talks about a study conducted by De Beers into people’s integrity, which revealed most individuals are inherently honest.
“There are some, of course, who might take a chance, but those who want to steal make up only a small percentage. One of our key core values is building trust in everyone who works for us.”
She says this approach is also applied to the communities living around the mines.
Zikalala grew up in Vryheid in KwaZulu-Natal. She wanted to be a doctor, “even though blood scared me”. She changed her mind when scouts for Anglo American visited her Inkamana High School looking for potential engineering students.
“They explained that it was one of the toughest courses at varsity and that immediately made me want to do it. I love a challenge. Finding a solution is what drives most engineers, and I wanted to experience this ‘difficult’ thing.”
She says her parents, who are both teachers, supported her decision to study chemical engineering.
Zikalala has continued to study, completing an Emerging Leaders Programme at the London Business School in 2006 and other leadership programmes.
The thoughtful, dynamic leader says she relaxes by running, and she completed the 21km Soweto Marathon in 2016.