Building a Foundation

Sixteen years ago, a young medical doctor decided to start her own construction business as a way of combating illness. She noticed that many of her patients were suffering from conditions directly related to their unhygienic living conditions. Today Motheo Construction Group, founded by Dr. Cynthia Thandi Ndlovu, affectionately known as Dr. T, is one of the leading providers of social housing in South Africa and to date has built over 66, 000 homes.

Tim Potter, Director at Motheo Construction Group explains, “Thandi came back from political exile in the early 90’s just prior to the elections in 1994 and ended up starting her own surgery in an area which was ill supplied with doctors. In a community of 400,000, she found herself one of three doctors. She was very much in demand. What she readily found out was that 70% of her patients were in her surgery purely because they had illnesses related to poor hygiene.”
With that Motheo, meaning Foundation in the South African language of Sotho, was born.

Along with Potter, Chris Cudmore also with a construction background became partners with Dr. T. Over a short period of years the company as a group has grown organically and has systematically developed young female professionals. Motheo has invested, through its staff trust into the lives of many up and coming players in the construction industry. To date Motheo has six black females holding the majority shares within the company.

Evolving With The Times

The construction of social housing makes up about two thirds of Motheo’s business but since 2005, Potter says the company has evolved into a new role.

“We’ve moved from being what I call social housing developers into contractors. The reason for that was that government themselves wanted to actually get more involved in the development aspect of providing residential accommodation.”

Potter says that because of his and Chris’ construction background, the company has been able to evolve. In the recent past Motheo Construction Group has become involved with the refurbishment of schools, offices and has worked on projects within the rail industry. Through joint ventures, Motheo has built new offices for the Department of International Relations in Pretoria, and built railway concourses for railway stations.

Potter says that the most significant change he’s seen in the South African construction industry over the past 16 years is the government’s desire to allow small entrepreneurs the opportunity to get into the industry.

“Say we’re being contracted to do 1, 000 houses in a rural area, then the expectation is there that we would arrive in that local area and actually screen and employ a number of the local contractors that are already there rather than importing our own people. They want us to bring more people into the participation around profit sharing and actually earning more than just the fruits of their labour but also starting to earn some profits.”

Creating Formality Out of Informality

Motheo Construction Group is also very involved in the process of clearing slums.

“The slum clearance projects are where you arrive in an area where people have gathered, for work opportunities or other reasons but they are gathered on the basis that there are no real defined services, like water or sewage,” says Potter. “As a result of that, it’s understandable because you end up with unhygienic living conditions and it needs to be properly developed. The government will then say okay let’s go into the area and let’s create some formality out of the informality. And they would do a campaigning exercise.”

During the campaigning exercise, the government would physically layout the streets and stands or stores. Motheo Construction would then arrive and have discussions with the local community. The residents would be briefed as to the timeline and process of the slum clearance. Motheo would firm up the logistics – Is there adequate water supply? What about sewage in the area? Can they get electricity into the community? If all of these questions have affirmative answers, Motheo could move ahead with the clearing of the slum. The residents would be moved around because Motheo would have to work around them.

Once the project was complete, Motheo would then relocate the residents into their new properties.

“It can take a decade to clear a slum. It all functions on available funding and when the money is available,” Potter says. “If they (government) target a particular area that they would like to formalize, they may have enough to do the first phase…what happens is that they’ll do a phase and you will carry on and if they have money in the next financial year and if they allocate it to you, you do the next phase.“

Empowering Staff

The idea for Motheo Construction Group was based on a social initiative and now it’s a thriving business. Empowering its employees and associated Suppliers and Subcontractors is an important mandate for the company.

Motheo has established a Staff Trust to support the development and growth of young potential. As a measure of that success, to date 5 of the trust beneficiaries have become shareholders in the company.

“There has always been a willingness to embrace upliftment because it actually is very much a part of the nature of what we are doing – which is building houses for people who don’t have homes,” explains Potter. “The empowerment issues started out as gender issues because Dr. T is a woman and has seen a lot of gender discrimination. That’s always been a very large part of what she does.”

Potter feels that the company is well positioned and that one of its main priorities is to build the next line of managers to run the business. The company is currently in secession planning because it doesn’t want to be ill-prepared in the future.

“The company is growing quite significantly at the moment. This year we will be 80% bigger than we were 2 years ago,” says Potter. “So that has its own questions in terms of structure. We have been good at actually sticking to what we know how to do. In other words, we haven’t tried to bite off too much. If we’re going to go into other sectors, we’re going to have to make sure we have the relevant personnel before we take on risk we don’t understand.”

Everyone’s Big Sister

From rebuilding homes for those in need, a young amputee to a grandmother, to supplying school uniforms to communities in need, to empowering her own staff, Dr. Thandi has truly built a foundation for the future of South Africa as she set out to do 16 years ago.

“Thandi is a very warm and affable person. She’s got very strong views and values. They’re views and values that I’ve found to be very easy to accept,” says Potter. “After 15 years I refer to her as my big sister…I’ve watched her in the midst of a developing democracy. I’ve watched her walk those beams…at often times taking an unpopular route in that she’s maintained white colleagues out of a political environment where many people in government have questioned her decision. “

A large part of Motheo’s success has involved the pairing up of older, more experienced staff with young ‘fresh from the box’ staff. Motheo holds a strong mentorship ethos, and this is proven in the fast tracked development of many young black females within the company.

Potter says that ‘Dr. T set out to develop an empowered business and this, she has done.’

Dr. Thandi is also involved in many other initiatives which include running her children’s foundation, the Dr. Thandi Ndlovu Children’s Foundation, as well as, being nominated as a finalist in the Business Women of the Year Awards 2013. Dr. Thandi also holds the position of president of the Black Business Council.

Not only has this dynamic women had to climb many personal obstacles, she has also reached Uhuru Peak, Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.

Dr. T is truly a remarkable woman, running a remarkable company – a true example.