Gibela's female rigger has been breaking barriers in the industry

Gibela is revolutionising the local rail industry and enhancing passenger experience with the 600 state-of-the-art X’trapolis Mega commuter train sets it’s producing for the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) by 2029.

The company is also revolutionising women’s empowerment in the sector, with a strong emphasis on driving inclusive economic growth and employment equity, and providing equal opportunity for women in a traditionally male-dominated industry: 48% of employees at Gibela are female, and this almost 1:1 ratio compares well to the 1:4 industry standard.

Gibela is heavily invested in making a positive socio-economic impact and has created 2 544 direct jobs and spent more than R23-million on employee training, through which more than 1 450 members have benefited – 90% of the trainees were black and 50% were women. Empowering historically disadvantaged individuals, specifically black women, is a key driver for a company where 29% of senior management, 49% of middle management and 49% of junior management are black women. 

Although female representation is more prominent at management level at Gibela, some women are directly involved in manufacturing the trains. Zandile Maduma is a permanent rigger at Gibela and has been involved in the production of the X’trapolis Mega commuter trains, which are a triumph of modern engineering and design – they have a focus on passenger comfort and safety and are environmentally friendly, being made from 90% recyclable components.

In a career spanning 16 years, Maduma has been the only female rigger at every company she has worked for, including Impala Platinum mine, Eskom’s Koeberg nuclear power plant near Cape Town and Gibela – something that the company hopes will change in the future. Maduma believes that progress in equality is encouraging more women to take up careers in fields previously only regarded as being open to men.

Born in Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, Maduma credits her ease in working in a male-dominated workplace to having grown up in a predominantly male household. With no money for university studies after matriculating, her parents sold two cattle to raise money so that she could enrol at the Majuba TVET College in Newcastle. There she saw a video of the work a rigger does and instantly fell in love with the trade.

“I’ve always been a very physical person so I knew that I would like to do something in the engineering field. I was always with my dad and brothers when they were painting; I’m not scared of heights and at home, I was always moving the furniture around the house,” she says.

Maduma studied a range of subjects at the college to qualify as a rigger, including Engineering Draughting, Mechanotechnology and Engineering Science. Her first job after qualifying was at Koeberg, where her starting salary was R75 per hour. “The job description is to lift and position equipment or a load safely from point A to point B,” says Maduma. But it is not as easy as it sounds.

There’s lots to consider before a load is moved – everything from the weight of the load to the position of potential obstacles along the route the load needs to travel, the proper equipment and even the type of knot needed to secure the load. “I’m the first one on the job at a move, to make sure it happens safely, and I’m the last one to bring back the equipment and put it back in position safely.”

The largest load she has ever had to lift was at Koeberg – a generator rotor weighing 110 tonnes. She says it’s easy to excel when you have the support and encouragement of your colleagues, and that is certainly the case at Gibela. “I really love the work I do. I also feel that now I am in a place where I can teach and mentor others to do this job, especially women. “I’ve been breaking barriers everywhere I go, but more and more women are doing things in
other fields where before there were only men, and that’s exciting.”

What does she say to young women starting their careers and choosing a career in a field that has traditionally been considered to be for men only? “I’m a true reflection that it is doable. You just need to be dedicated, consistent and show confidence in the work you do. Be approachable and be a person who can work in a team, especially in a male-dominated area – work with them not
against them. 

“Learn as much as you can, so you can do things for yourself – but also learn to ask for help.”