South Africa is a country where gender and business stereotypes are rapidly disappearing. Although it still comes as a surprise that one of the nation’s leading social housing developers with more than 80 000 units to its credit is owned, managed and run by a woman.
Motheo Construction has been breaking down stereotypes since opening its doors for business in 1997 under the leadership of Dr Thandi Ndlovu, a medical doctor who has seen the company complete projects valued at more than R5.5 billion.
With headquarters in Randburg and offices in Durban, Kimberley, East London and Johannesburg, Motheo has successfully completed building projects anywhere in the country where their skills have been required.
Strong convictions and commitment
Clues of how a doctor, once schooled in Soweto, ends up running a successful construction company lie in Dr Ndlovu’s background. She is a woman of strong convictions who, when committed to a course of action, cannot be easily swayed.
While studying and acting as Secretary of the Student’s Representative Council at the University of Fort Hare in 1976, she was forced to abandon her BSc, because of the oppression that followed the Soweto student’s uprising. Her brother, Hastings, fell victim to shots fired at the students on 16 June 1976 - the same day that Hector Pieterson, a symbol of the revolt, died from the violent action.
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Dr Ndlovu spent the next few years actively fighting apartheid as part of the ANC’s MK military wing, moving into exile in Angola. She undertook several tasks, including that of running literacy and education programmes, and assisting as a medical officer before moving to the USSR. Later, she moved on to Lusaka in Zambia, where she enrolled at the University of Zambia in 1984 and completed her BSc (Human Biology) and MBchB degrees, finally realising her medical ambitions.
After the regime change, she returned to South Africa and identified a need in Orange Farm informal settlement, where she set up shop as the only doctor assisting a population of about 200 000 people. And there she could have remained, living out what she describes as “her life’s work”, and educating people on the benefits of preventative and community medicine.
A change in direction
The event that changed the direction of her life came when she began working with local health committees, pushing for improved housing to replace the shacks that exacerbated the health problems in the area. Dr Ndlovu’s first challenge was to find suitable premises for her medical practice.
“I found a half-built shack and began working with some men to replace it with properly built medical rooms from which I could treat people,” she recalls. She learned a lot about building, but saw her investment rewarded as patients came from other townships to consult and admired her building and facilities.
“I read about a former MD of Premier Milling who was introducing the art of brickmaking to rural communities. After seeing what he was doing, I got excited and phoned government to find out how I could get involved in building houses for the people. Eventually, I received six large arch lever files on the processes and rules to be followed to build homes.”
The birth of Motheo Construction
Not knowing the meaning of “impossible”, Dr Ndlovu drove to Pietermaritzburg to meet with a builder, and by the end of a weekend session she knew that what they wanted could be done.
“If you could persuade a professional team to work at their own risk, it was possible to get the drawings and engineering services planned and approved. Then government would provide a subsidy that could finance the required project, and that was the birth of Motheo Construction.
“We began to target chiefs in rural areas of Mpumalanga who could give permission for building. I realised that we needed people of vision to assist us, so I contacted Matthews Phosa, Premier of Mpumalanga, who arranged for us to do presentations. The chiefs were fascinated by our model for building 1 000 units, as we did not only concentrate on building, but used the activity as an opportunity to train and develop people.
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“We proposed coming in with a competent professional team to train people in these areas to build houses within the subsidy guidelines. Once we left, they would have the skills necessary to add rooms and improve the houses as needed.”
Phosa responded by asking her to build 10 000 houses. Political pressure and suspicion about Motheo’s model led to auditors being brought in. After a full audit, and three years later than scheduled, Motheo began their work. The medical practice in Orange Farm was sold to another doctor, and Dr Ndlovu began structuring Motheo for the future.
The result is an enterprise where Black women own 54% of the equity and work in the business on a daily basis. They also represent professionals ranging from quantity surveying, project management, and water and civil engineering disciplines.
“Like their male colleagues, Motheo’s women work on site in both rural and urban environments. The success of our empowerment initiatives can be measured in the achievement of the 20 Motheo Trust beneficiaries who progressed from newly qualified, inexperienced individuals to full members of Team Motheo. Today they manage projects and departments within the business.”
The agenda to develop and empower those with talent is undertaken by the Dr Thandi Ndlovu Children’s Foundation, which currently supports 20 orphaned and vulnerable children through their schooling and tertiary education. The Foundation covers education fees, accommodation, meals, laptops and computers, and provides the support that the children would normally have obtained from parents.
The career paths chosen by the children are as diverse as their backgrounds; they are pursuing professions as chartered accountants, musicians, mathematicians, chemical engineers and agricultural economists.
The development of small- to medium-sized enterprises is another passion that is served by Motheo, assisting identified companies with bridging finance, technical skills and guarantee facilities so they can undertake projects on their own account.
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Going into the future with a full order book, Dr Ndlovu’s company is benefitting from her belief in investing in people and expanding their skills. Although Motheo’s activities still centre around housing, about a third of the projects they have successfully completed involve building facilities that range from the R60 million Orlando train station in Soweto, rail refurbishment projects valued at over R200 million, a R35 million administrative building for the eThekwini Municipality, and the R1.35billion Department of International Relations building (Motheo’s portion being 12.5%).
Dr Ndlovu herself goes into the future with strong views about strengthening her own company: “This is a truly South African company. It is built on a model where everybody works together for its benefit. We are still true to our original model. We send in highly skilled professionals, get them to work with young people to carry things forward and leave skills behind.
“Motheo believes that there is room for everybody to benefit and grow in our country,” she concludes.