Winning Women – Dr Thandi Ndlovu: The houses that innovation built

2013-11-04 08:00

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65?000 homes later, this doctor no longer fixes patients but the world they live in, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

It was Dr Thandi Ndlovu’s medical background, and a hobby, that led to her creating the now mammoth Motheo Construction Group.

She was running a private medical practice in the Orange Farm informal settlement in Gauteng in the mid-1990s when she became increasingly concerned about the levels of ill health caused by the poor living conditions she saw there.

So she built an attractive clinic complete with waterborne sewage “so that ill people would feel uplifted”, she says.

But then a puzzled patient, who was used to long drops and pails, asked where the water took his waste matter.

Ndlovu explained how it worked and, in her community health talks, during which she focused on hygiene and cleanliness, she urged people to apply for government housing subsidies.

Most had never heard of them. Ndlovu set out to rectify this and became increasingly fascinated by the challenges posed by good, yet affordable, housing.

Determined to empower the 200?0000-strong community she served, she flung her net far and wide, and was taken by a Nedbank executive to a village deep in rural Limpopo where she saw impoverished women making bricks and building their own houses.

It was a eureka moment for the doctor, who began working on a housing model for Orange Farm.

But the local municipality declared it illegal and it was with some frustration that, months later, she mentioned her plan to Mathews Phosa, who was then the premier of Mpumalanga.

She explained how her concept not only created employment, but provided valuable skills as well as an agrivillage in the middle of the housing project that would enable impoverished people to grow their own food.

An intrigued Phosa invited Ndlovu to his province, where she presented her model, based on 1?000 units.

“But he was so excited, he commissioned 10?000 units. Women began to make bricks and build, and one planted a rose garden so she could sell flowers,” says Ndlovu as we sit in her attractive, wood-panelled office in Motheo’s Randburg, Joburg, headquarters.

Then disaster struck, as overnight her project was frozen, “due to no tenders having been called for it. And that, of course, was because we’d come up with an innovative solution to housing the rural poor”, she says.

At the end of a three-year investigation, a retired judge declared “there was no evidence of corruption and, in 1998, we began to build again”.

Sceptics who had scoffed nts as low as R9?500 were surprised.

“But we used local people, which meant we didn’t have overhead costs such as imported labour. We explained to the builders that we had a defined amount of money and could not pay more.”

And so the foundations were laid for the Motheo (which means “foundation” or “cornerstone” in Sotho) Construction Group.

To date, it has built 65?000 units in the social housing sector. Now Motheo’s projects include schools, town centres and office buildings in both the private and public sectors across eight provinces.

The total value of Motheo’s completed projects to date is in excess of R4.2?billion.

“Yet we only directly employ 1?800 people with a further 1?800 in different capacities,” says Ndlovu, emphasising that Motheo still uses local resources.

“We’re also training people and, often, when a project in their particular area is complete, they continue to work for us elsewhere. So we’re creating employment and empowering people,” she says.

Ndlovu knows what it is to struggle. She was born and raised in Orlando, Soweto, where she completed her schooling before beginning her BSc degree at the University of Fort Hare with the intention to become a doctor. She was on the student representative council there when her brother Hastings Ndlovu, one of the student leaders in the June 16 1976 Soweto Uprising, was killed.

She went into exile and spent the next couple of years in military training in the ranks of Umkhonto weSizwe at Novo Catengue in southern Angola.

“I ran a literacy and education programme and, although I wasn’t medically trained, I was made a medical officer, helping to look after the needs of our soldiers,” she says.

Some years on, when she asked the ANC if she could study medicine in Lusaka, Zambia, it was the then ANC president, Oliver Tambo, who silenced her critics and insisted that she went. “I will always remember that and thank him,” says Ndlovu.

When the ANC was unbanned and those in exile returned, she worked as an intern at the then Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto before deciding to set up her own medical practice.

Today, this mother of six leads an extraordinarily busy life with civil society leadership roles, both locally as well as in other parts of Africa.

She has helped facilitate peace dialogues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi and South Sudan, and sits on various company boards, including that of Truworths.

She is the president of the Black Business Council in the Built Environment.

She’s also a keen golfer and has summited both Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro.

A Motheo Staff Trust not only allocates free company shares to staff but also provides in-house training for a range of skills – from negotiation

and concrete technology to accounting.

»?This series runs fortnightly

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