Dr Thandi Ndlovu – the woman at the helm of one of the most successful black women-owned construction companies – has broken down barriers and cemented the role and influence of women in an industry that for years has been dominated by men.
With resilience and unhindered determination, Ndlovu overcame every obstacle in her way. Growing up in rural Soweto, she matriculated with seven distinctions, and was dead set on realising her dream of becoming a medical doctor. However, with a growing political consciousness she joined Umkhonto we Sizwe – the military wing of the African National Congress.
The next couple of years saw Ndlovu actively fighting the apartheid regime, running education programmes whilst in exile in Angola. In 1984, she moved to Zambia, enrolled in BSc (Human Biology) and MBchB degrees at the University of Zambia, where she finally started on her journey and lifelong dream of becoming a doctor.
Being amongst the number of exiles returning to South Africa at the start of the new democracy, Ndlovu started her private practice in the informal settlement of Orange Farm. There she was doctor for almost five years to more than 200 000 people. After being confronted with the abhorrent living conditions of her patients, she decided that she needed to make a difference, and so the foundations for Motheo Construction were laid.
What prompted you to start the Motheo Construction Group?
Upon returning to South Africa after the unbanning of political movements and the return of exiles, I ran a private medical practice in Orange Farm, an informal settlement south of Johannesburg, for five years. I was the sole private practitioner, and delivered medical services to a population of over 200 000 people. As I cared for my patients I noticed that a large number of illnesses were caused by poor living conditions, so I sought to help the community with housing. What began as an interest in supporting the vulnerable families in Orange Farm has turned into a 20-year-old truly empowered business operating nationally.
Women remain grossly underrepresented in the male-dominated construction industry – and still account for only 10% of the workforce. Is the upliftment of women, in particular, one of the goals of Motheo Construction Group?
From early on Motheo has intentionally supported the development of young dynamic women in the construction
space. For example, Lettie Ndhlovu joined Motheo as a trainee site quantity surveyor in 2005. She now sits as a director on our board and holds shares in the business. The upliftment of women remains a key focus area at Motheo. We have numerous stories of young female entrants fast-tracking their growth after being mentored by older, highly experienced men. We, unapologetically, have advanced the interests of black women, in a male-dominated industry.
Do you think being a woman at the helm of the construction industry has different challenges compared to those experienced by men?
There are unique challenges, but nothing that can’t be bridged. I have been blessed with great business partners, and we complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses well. As a woman, I have held my head high and proudly stepped into this industry.
What have been some of your greatest achievements?
This year marks our 20th anniversary. To mark this incredible journey, we as a leadership team, are embarking on a trek to Base Camp Everest. Yes, we love big mountains and have climbed Kilimanjaro twice! Base Camp at Everest is about the same height as Kilimanjaro – and hard to reach – we’ll be spending 16 days on the mountain. As a business, 20 years feels to us like we’ve reached ‘base camp’. Base camp is where the next climb begins, the climb to the summit. We’ve built a sustainable, truly empowered, women-owned business. As we stand at our 20 year mark, we are proud, but our eyes now glance towards greater heights.
And some of your most difficult challenges?
Transformation in the construction industry has been a significant challenge. Through the work of the Black Business Council (BBC) and the government, we are excited about the shifts that are happening with regard to the settlement agreement*. Time will tell, but we remain positive.
Do you have any advice for aspiring women entrepreneurs?
A couple of thoughts:
• A dream doesn’t happen in a day
• Be brave, but wise
• Study and grow as a person
• Know what you don’t know. Find the right partners
• Consistent daily pursuit is what gets you to the top
*In settlement of collusion claims in the industry, six of South Africa’s largest construction and engineering groups have confirmed that they will collectively pay R1.25-billion to accelerate transformation in the construction sector.