SA 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 75 000 units to its credit, is owned, managed and run by a woman.

In fact, Motheo Construction has been breaking down stereotypes since it opened its doors in 1997, under the leadership of Dr Thandi Ndlovu, a medical doctor who’s 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.

Clues to how a doctor, once schooled in Soweto, ended up running a successful construction company lie in Dr Ndlovu’s background. She’s a woman of strong convictions who, when committed to a course of action, cannot be easily swayed.

Early days

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.

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 to Lusaka, where she enrolled at the University of Zambia in 1984 and completed her BSc in 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. There she could have remained, living out what she describes as “her life’s work”, educating people on the benefits of preventative and community medicine.

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.