Dr El­ize Stry­dom, chief ne­go­tia­tor for the Cham­ber of Mines, ini­tially planned to be­come a diplo­mat. To­day, she uses her pow­ers of per­sua­sion to get min­ing houses and unions to see eye to eye in wage talks, writes Sue Grant-Mar­shall

CityPress - - Business -

Craggy-faced men with cal­loused hands, some clenched in­vol­un­tar­ily, some grip­ping the ta­ble, stare in­tensely at the diminu­tive Dr El­ize Stry­dom as she tells the mine work­ers what South Africa’s gold com­pa­nies are of­fer­ing them in this year’s wage ne­go­ti­a­tions. There is dead si­lence in the cham­ber, where 150 men from four unions are sit­ting. The chief ne­go­tia­tor for the Cham­ber of Mines is in­wardly as anx­ious as the men in the room be­cause a lot is rid­ing on a suc­cess­ful out­come for an in­dus­try bat­tered by fall­ing com­mod­ity prices and labour un­rest.

The shine from the gold that once made South Africa’s econ­omy gleam in­ter­na­tion­ally is fad­ing.

No­body knows this bet­ter than Stry­dom. For 13 years she’s been lis­ten­ing to the unions be­fore in­form­ing mine bosses about their de­mands. She is the one who must re­turn to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble with the man­date given to her by the Cham­ber of Mines’ cau­cus.

“Then I think to my­self: El­ize, you can­not get this wrong. Be calm, be clear, be­cause so much de­pends on the out­come of the talks.”

She has taught her­self over the years to un­der­stand body lan­guage, to sense a smile in the eyes of a tough talker.

“I can see im­me­di­ately, with­out a word be­ing spo­ken, when there’s no ap­petite for a pro­posal I have put on the ta­ble,” says Stry­dom in her softly as­sertive voice in which ev­ery syl­la­ble is clearly enun­ci­ated.

Her clar­ity of speech and its con­tent were high­lighted a few weeks ago when a union rep­re­sen­ta­tive said: “We want Dr Stry­dom to talk to us be­cause she does it slowly and nicely.”

She knows what men who sweat be­neath the Earth’s sur­face do, and how they feel, as she has been there. In 2007, she in­sisted on be­ing taken as deep un­der­ground as it was pos­si­ble for her to go.

“I wanted to spend the day with rock-drill op­er­a­tors – to feel the heat, the heav­i­ness of the ma­chines, the dust.”

And they know she knows. It is why their re­spect for her is as deep as the mines into which they de­scend.

Stry­dom pre­pares metic­u­lously for wage ne­go­ti­a­tions, go­ing to the ple­nary room the day be­fore to per­son­ally test the mi­cro­phones, “so that ev­ery per­son will hear clearly”.

She sorts out the lo­gis­tics of where the dif­fer­ent unions will sit, checks on the food to be served, mind­ful that “some want mealie pap and meat; oth­ers do not”.

Her at­ten­tion to de­tail ex­tends to her dress: “I don’t wear red or green, as they are the colours of two of the unions and I might – jok­ingly – be ac­cused of bias.”

Her light tone as we sit in her high-ceilinged cor­ner of­fice in the im­pos­ing

Lit­tle black book

Cham­ber of Mines build­ing in down­town Joburg be­lies the re­spon­si­bil­ity she car­ries on her slight shoul­ders. She’s busy with ne­go­ti­a­tions when we meet. “It’s tough to of­ten be the only woman in a room full of men, know­ing they are hang­ing on to ev­ery sin­gle word you say. “If I get it wrong or make a com­mit­ment the cham­ber can­not meet…” She takes a deep breath and ac­knowl­edges that trust and good re­la­tion­ships have been painstak­ingly built up over more than a decade.

“I some­times tell the trade unions that they have be­come pro­fes­sion­als at glar­ing at me.”

She chuck­les and agrees whole­heart­edly that be­ing a woman has worked to her ad­van­tage, il­lus­trat­ing this with a story about Gwede Man­tashe, for­mer trade union­ist and now ANC sec­re­tary-gen­eral.

He told her one day that he had been brought up “not to fight with a woman, so you have an un­fair ad­van­tage. Be­sides, you al­ways say things with a smile.”

But when Stry­dom first ar­rived at the Cham­ber of Mines in 1999, she en­coun­tered en­trenched male chau­vin­ism.

She was head-hunted from Unisa, where she had been as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor and head of labour law in its depart­ment of mer­can­tile law.

She re­alises in ret­ro­spect how brave she was in leav­ing the world of academia, where she was so com­fort­able.

When her then boss, the chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of the cham­ber, Frans Barker, sug­gested she han­dle wage ne­go­ti­a­tions with coal min­ing unions, he first sought per­mis­sion from the lead­ers of the dif­fer­ent min­ing houses.

Stry­dom went on over the years to fully jus­tify Barker’s faith in her.

She was brought up on the East Rand, and stud­ied for her Bach­e­lor of Laws at the Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria. She was ac­cepted as a cadet at the for­eign af­fairs depart­ment, but de­clined it when she learnt women never got top posts.

She did her ar­ti­cles, was ad­mit­ted as an at­tor­ney and chose to work for a firm that al­lowed her to go to court and lit­i­gate. The de­ter­mined young woman then de­cided she needed to ob­tain her master’s in tax and com­pany law at Unisa, and ended up as an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor.

She has never mar­ried and has no chil­dren. “I re­alised men are not comfy with a part­ner who is al­ways busy and whose phone rings non­stop.”

Stry­dom en­joys an in­cred­i­bly strong bond with her brother – they phone each other daily – and she hikes with his fam­ily on week­ends. She’s also re­mark­ably close to her Bel­gium-born mother (82), who still en­joys a beer when they go out.

The warmth of her fam­ily has clearly en­abled this strong-minded ne­go­tia­tor with her low public pro­file – “I am shy and ret­i­cent,” she says – to suc­cess­fully man­age a stress­ful ca­reer which many might balk at.

Put your hand up; vol­un­teer; be ea­ger. You’ll be sur­prised by what you can learn in the process.

My mother, a teacher, who has taught me com­pas­sion for hu­man­ity.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu.

Run your own race. Don’t con­stantly com­pare your­self with oth­ers.

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