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Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

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Thandi Ndlovu. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

Thandi Ndlovu: The doctor-turned-builder

 Often, when she works in the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, people wonder why a woman with such a well-known Zulu name struggles with the language, while Sesotho dances over her lips. Dr. Thandi Ndlovu’s mother hails from the Free State province, where Sotho is the dominant language. She shared the language with her children in the Ndlovu household.

Back in 1976, when on the way back north with fellow students from the University of Fort Hare at Alice in the Eastern Cape, they drove hastily through the Free State in a Volkswagen loaded with cans of petrol side-by-side with their luggage. Racism was prevalent in the province at the time, and the objective was to avoid potential confrontations with antagonistic white locals at petrol stations.

As they crossed into the then Transvaal, they saw a huge ball of fire. Police vehicles dotted the road to the township of Soweto, where she grew up. Arriving home, she knocked on her 17-year-old brother’s window to find out what was happening, but Hastings wasn’t there. When her father saw her, he said: “The country is on fire. The school children have taken over the struggle.”

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It was June 17, 1976, the day after the Soweto youth uprising. Ndlovu’s school teacher father told her how “all hell broke loose” at the school the previous morning, and that he hadn’t seen his son ‘Hassie’ since. On July 3, Hastings was found in a government hospital, killed by a police bullet on June 16.

“It was devastating. He was a jewel of a child. And to a little extent, he took after me,” Ndlovu opens up.

“I’m a firm believer in the humanity in us. He would walk down the street everyday coming from school, and little kids would run to him. He would have sweets in all his pockets. He would take the ones who were at school and go through their homework with them. 

“We were to learn later that he was actually the victim of a marksman’s bullet because he was part of the organizers of the June 16th demonstration.

“I’m telling you this story because I want to contextualize it in terms of our experiences under apartheid, and our reaction to those experiences. The pain happened. The pain is still there. But when we talk about it, it is both with pride and gratitude that he was there at a time that he needed to be there to add onto the little bit that each and every human being was doing to change the situation.”

Ndlovu has found that many South Africans today, especially the younger generation, don’t understand the full extent of the sacrifices made by the people involved in the struggle to bring about change in the country. 

“We have to contextualize where we are today so that people appreciate that those experiences, negative as they could have been, are the ones that made us what we are. Because they instilled in us a semblance of resilience, of ‘I can do it and I have to do it and I have to work hard to do it’.”

In September 1976, in the third year of a BSc degree in biochemistry and chemistry, and with an excellent year mark, Ndlovu felt compelled, under pressure from the police, to leave her home, her family and her country. With R10 (less than a dollar) in her pocket, she left South Africa.

During her exile of 18 years, in 1980, her mother passed away, having lost her youngest son to a bullet and three daughters to exile. They could not return to attend the funeral.  

Ndlovu first went to Mozambique and then Zambia. As a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), she received training in southern Angola between 1977 and 1979. This was followed by a trip to Moscow to study at the Young Communist League school.

In 1984, she registered at the University of Zambia, where she obtained BSc and MBChB degrees, qualifying on the eve of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, in 1990.

Returning to South Africa, she interned at the famed Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, while working as a locum for a partnership of doctors at a train station in Vereeniging in the Gauteng province of the country. Her training in Zambia concentrated on preventative rather than curative medicine, and Ndlovu was amazed to see mothers from “a place called Orange Farm” bringing malnourished babies to the doctors’ rooms.

That was until she saw the informal settlement with her own eyes. She took in row upon row upon row of tin shacks, with no sanitation and “no form of decent livelihood” for its population of over 200,000 people. In 1993, she set up a practice at Orange Farm.

“It became like an oasis for the community. For me, it was a calling. It was in the course of dealing with the disease profile in the community and seeing the need, that I started talking to the women. There was a government fund for poor people to build their own houses,” Ndlovu, affectionately called ‘Dr T’ by those who know her well, explains.

“My own practice had been built by the unemployed men of the community. All I did was go to the local hardware store, which was run by my cousin brother, and told him I wanted to build a proper structure among the shacks. He said he knew good builders in the area. I didn’t know much about construction, but up to today, that building stands. So in the middle of this place of misery, here was an oasis of health.”

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Patients who lived in shacks with no toilets and no running water would visit the practice and see a VVIP bathroom with a basin and flush toilet.

“For me, it was giving poor people a sense of dignity and showing them that the whole thing was built by the men in their community. They came with the idea of the pit latrine. They came with the idea of the running water.  And that’s how I set up a community health forum and with a women’s organization called Voice of Women, we started conceptualizing a pilot project for us to build houses for their families,” Ndlovu says.

A senior executive at Nedcor (now Nedbank Group) who dealt with low-cost housing gave her some pointers on how to proceed and she put together a professional team who, ironically, considering her struggle credentials, were all white men, but she knew they would deliver, and they put together a proposal to build 1,000 houses. 

When presenting the project to the municipality, a problem arose. The title couldn’t be passed on to the beneficiaries because they had occupied the land illegally.

“I was deflated. What do I do? I knew I had a good enough concept to sell elsewhere. That’s how I sold it to Mpumalanga [a province in South Africa], to Premier Mathews Phosa,” she relates.

When she went for the meeting one December afternoon, the room was filled with representatives from all the rural municipalities, mayors and municipal managers. She presented the model and left.

“I was on my way back to Johannesburg, and he called and said, ‘come back’. He introduced me to the head of the Mpumalanga Housing Board. By Monday of the following week, I was called to come and sign an opportunity to build, not 1,000 houses as per the proposal, but 10,000 houses in the rural areas of Mpumalanga.

“But, but,” Ndlovu interrupts herself, “that was the one thing that put me in serious trouble.” 

Established housing contractors were up in arms, asking how a medical doctor with no construction experience could be awarded a contract worth R198 million (about $14.2 million). There was extensive media coverage. After thorough investigation – a forensic audit and a commission of inquiry – three years later, she was cleared of the allegations of corruption. The scope of the project was reduced from 10,000 to 6,500 houses, and she could proceed with it.

Her ego was bruised, and she felt compelled to show the country, and especially her competitors, the mettle she was made of and how ethical she was. So it came that after three years of running a medical practice at Orange Farm, and nine years of intensive medical training, the doctor sold her private practice.

“The reason was really that I had seen the country had not embraced the capacity of those same people, the poor people for whom the program was designed, to do it for themselves. I wanted to show the country that you don’t have to have huge infrastructure to build a 40sqm house for a person. And that you can actually build capacity in that poor person by training them to be able, long after you’ve gone, to fix their housing problems.

“That was 22 years ago, and I haven’t looked back,” she laughs.

As soon as she had sold her medical practice to the locum who had worked with her, she started looking for partners. The Sunday before she was to meet up with two white men, who had left the construction firm Murray & Roberts with management contracts to honor the low-cost housing projects signed on by the firm before its exit strategy from low-cost housing, Ndlovu went to the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, and prayed.

“I said, Lord, when I meet these white people, please give me the strength to at least tolerate them,” she laughs, recalling it now. “Then I went to meet Chris Cudmore, and the rest is history.”

They reached an agreement “in less than 10 minutes”, papers were drawn up and signed within days and the partnership between Ndlovu, Cudmore and Tim Porter has lasted 22 years – and counting. Cudmore is a South African quantity surveyor and Porter is an Australian engineer. The initial Motheo Construction Group partnership was a split of 51:49 in favor of Ndlovu.

Over the years, she has diluted her equity to around 41% of the business, bringing in more young black female investors.

With a current black female ownership of 54%, the Motheo Construction Group specializes in mass housing, which after diversification, makes up 66% of the business. Other divisions include road infrastructure and civil engineering. The Motheo Academy is Dr T’s pride and joy.

“When we do have a project anywhere, we involve especially young people from communities, whether urban or rural, and train them. We have a strong relationship with the Construction Education and Training Authority. At the end of the project, they are left with skills. So the academy would do special mentorship programs – at the moment with 15 people – with the intention of leaving something behind as we grow the business,” she says.

When she started Motheo in 1997, there were seven big construction companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. The landscape in 2019 looks very different. Within months, three big South African construction firms – Group Five, Basil Read and Esor – were forced to file for bankruptcy protection. Previous giants Aveng and Murray & Roberts have also not had it easy. How is Motheo Construction Group coping, we ask?

“You know, the decisions I took many years ago to bring into my business highly-skilled, competent individuals, who I thank God for; they share my passion for developing others. They share my passion for running a responsible business – a business that will make money, but always give back. And so, touch wood, we’re doing very well. We’ve grown in the last three years 20 percent year-on-year on average. I think we are the largest black women-owned construction business in the country. And we have survived.”

The business has done almost a billion rand turnover ($72 million) per annum, with 200 people permanently employed, and between 1,000 and 1,500 waged employees at a given time.

“Why? Because we believe in keeping a very small overhead cost structure and then empowering the people we work with on the ground.” 

In this way, the group has built a network of subcontractors throughout the country.

“The fundamentals for establishing the business were solid,” she elaborates. “It was built on ethical principles, and it is paying dividends.”

Prompted by the government to transform the construction industry through partnerships, a Settlement Agreement was signed in 2016 with seven large construction firms. As part of this Agreement, WBHO – now the largest surviving construction firm – partnered with Motheo Construction, Fikile Construction and Edwin Construction, who would be “supported to collectively reach 25% of the WBHO construction and civil engineering turnover”, according to the South African Forum of Civil Engineering Contractors.

“Black youngsters who leave technikons and universities could be matched with older, more experienced people,” she explains. “The ‘twinning’ model has really been proven for me. Right now, I’ve got two or three young women that I take to my old ‘toppies’ and say you shall work with this person. It accelerates their development. It’s a model I believe South Africa should follow.

“Unfortunately, a lot of skills that would have been used to develop this twinning model have left the country or are in retirement.”

Ndlovu serves on several boards, including Truworths International, her own company boards and the boards of businesses she invests in.  

There is also the Dr Thandi Ndlovu Children’s Foundation, which is close to her heart. Full scholarships have been awarded to 25 students to go to university and technikon at an average cost of R1.5 million ($107,829) to R2 million ($143,772).

At the age of 65, she has no intention of retiring any time soon, but when she does, she will spend her time hiking (she has summited Kilimanjaro twice, reached the base camp of Mount Everest and the base camp of Annapurna, and is off to Machu Picchu next), teaching and passing on skills, building South Africa, redressing racial tensions and motivating people.

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Side bar: The Days of The Struggle And the Mentors that made her 

“My biggest mentor has been former [South African] First Lady Zanele Mbeki. In exile, she mentored us young women. I was 21 when I went to that camp of the ANC and I was the eldest. There were other young women of 13 or 14 that I had to look after in a camp of over 1,000 men, there were 21 of us. So there were these older women, who were not in the camp with us, but who when we needed anything, we asked them. They included Mrs Mbeki. The generation older than us were our big sisters, so we told them everything,” remembers Ndlovu. Others were the late Adelaide Tambo, wife of Oliver Tambo, and struggle icon Ruth Mompati, as well as Barbara Masekela, who was President Nelson Mandela’s chief of staff until 1995, and politician, diplomat and poet Lindiwe Mabuza. 

– Jill De Villiers

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