When Daphne Mashile Nkosi woke up one day, she was told by her lawyers that she had been removed as a director and wasn’t even a lowly shareholder of the multi-billion dollar company she had built from scratch, she thought someone was playing a joke on her. A sick joke at that, for not only did Kalahari Resources have billions in the bank, after securing loans to develop a manganese mine, executive chairperson Mashile Nkosi was still in mourning after burying her husband—who was also her business partner—just a few days earlier.
In one of the most bizarre stories in South African business history, Mashile Nkosi’s name, and those of her fellow directors, had been removed from the database of the Department of Trade and Industry’s Companies and Intellectual Property Registration Office. Things were made even more surreal by the fact that the group laying claim to the assets was led by the late Sandile Majali, a dubious character and controversial businessman who was well connected in the upper echelons of the ruling African National Congress. Majali had never been in any way connected to Kalahari, so his move was not preceded by any hostile takeover bid or shareholder revolt, or anything like that.
Mashile Nkosi brought an urgent interdict before the Johannesburg High Court.
Outside court, radio, television and newspapers were all keen to hear her side of the story. But the more she told of her hitherto unknown rise and rise in the mining industry, she says, the more doubts there were about whether she was indeed the real power behind her growing empire.
“I listened to some of the comments. The more I told my story, the more certain people doubted whether these assets belonged to me.”
Rumors and conspiracy theories started flying thick and fast.
“Some were saying nasty things like ‘you send a thief to catch a thief,’” Mashile Nkosi says. “Others thought, ‘she’s either corrupt or slept her way up to the top.’ I said to myself: ‘what did you expect? You got into a man’s world and changed the course of history. You have to go through this pain to make your gains. Stay focused.’”
About a month after the filing of the interdict, the court ruled in favor of Mashile Nkosi. Majali was arrested for fraud, and was also asked to pay Mashile Nkosi’s legal costs.
Mashile Nkosi’s foray into the male-dominated and often dangerous world of mining started long before the 2010 corporate hijacking incident.
In 1999, as a community development activist leading a women’s rights NGO at the time, she was invited by current Exxaro CEO Sipho Nkosi (no relation to her or her late husband) to form part of the Eyesizwe consortium that was to bid for four South African collieries belonging to multinationals Anglo American and BHP Billiton.
“Sipho said he wanted a very strong structure,” Mashile Nkosi remembers. “We put the structure together, went for presentations to Anglo and BHP, and got the business.”
As soon as she was in on the Eyesizwe deal—she is still a shareholder and serves on its board and those of its subsidiaries—she started being courted by other consortia. She soon discovered that many of these syndicates just wanted women “tag alongs” so that they could show that they had women in their midst.
“The men would have their own discussions and reserve 3-4% for women. I sat back and thought, ‘it’s not going to help if all I do is just scream and shout. What is it that I need to do?’
I decided to look for an opportunity that I would start from scratch, control and own, and be the one who would bring in the men.”
In 2001, the relatively unknown Mashile Nkosi applied to the government for manganese prospecting rights. She got them four years later.
Together with her husband, Dan Nkosi, they raised R12.5 million for a pre-feasibility study that confirmed the existence of manganese in the Kuruman area of the Northern Cape province of South Africa.
The following year state financier, the Independent Development Corporation (IDC), granted the company R60 million to do a feasibility study.
Once the feasibility study was successfully completed, the IDC took 20% of Kalahari, and the two entities began to search for a strategic equity partner. After receiving expressions of interest from 19 companies from all over the world, they chose Arcelor Mittal. The world’s leading steel producer now owns 50% of Kalagadi Manganese, Mashile Nkosi’s Kalahari Resources has 40%, and the rest (10%) is owned by the IDC.
Kalagadi is sitting on just under a billion tons of manganese, a commodity tipped for rapid growth in South Africa. The manganese in South Africa is of high quality, with low carbon, making it sought after by steel makers. The country holds a quarter of the world market and its manganese mines are found in the Kalahari Basin in the Northern Cape. Analysts are saying it is likely to be a boom year for manganese this year.
The Kalagadi project includes a R4.2 billion smelter that will be based at the Coega industrial development zone in the South African coastal city of Port Elizabeth. The smelter is part of an R11 billion project that includes a mine and sinter plant.
By June, Mashile Nkosi says, the company should start producing three million tons of manganese ore, 1.7 million tons of beneficiated sinter, all to be shipped to the Coega smelter for beneficiation.
While the journey has not been easy—water and electricity supply problems meant Kalagadi had to buy generators and truck in water while it negotiated with state utilities—the project is already helping to revive the local economy.
The mine employs 1,600 people, while a further 1,600 are employed by sub-contractors who are engaged in a variety of services ranging from laundry and food to engineering and other specialized services. The water pipeline currently being installed, as well as the tarred roads being erected, will assist farmers and the community.
“The difference between me and other people is not that I’m intelligent. I put in extra hours. I push. I work very hard. And as long as I am making a difference, I’m happy. When you see Africa on CNN or the BBC, it’s hungry kids with flies on their mouths. We should be using our minerals to build our countries, to build our continent. Not what some people do—get a license and then sell it to Australians or Europeans.”
Mashile Nkosi’s life has been lived through breaking rules, banishing stereotypes and confounding expectations. The youngest of four children, two boys and two girls, she says she was always different.
Growing up in the former gold rush town of Pilgrim’s Rest, in Mpumalanga, where she was born, she was inspired by her grandmother, who brought up 13 grandchildren single-handedly from proceeds of traditional brew, cakes and everything else she could lay her hands on.
When she was four or five and taken to Johannesburg to join her biological parents, she learnt just how tough and unfair life could be when she saw how her “never satisfied” father treated her “beautiful” mother—“like a second class citizen, even though she did so much for him.” Mashile Nkosi was incensed. “I told myself I will never be abused in a relationship. So in my choice of people I would later go out with, I was clear that I would never be abused.”
Any man who thought he would abuse her would have had to think twice anyway, for when she was younger she was always her “weak” older brother’s keeper, fighting for him against other boys and beating the male species in their own game.
You could argue, in mining, she is doing the same.
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