South African construction firm Mbokodo, founded by female leader Thandeka Nombanjinji-Nzama, was born in 2008 out of family firm Nombanjinji Family Property, and is challenging gender roles in a male-dominated industry.
By Shane Starling
Thandeka Nombanjinji-Nzama has the cranes and concrete of construction in her blood. She might as well have been born in a hardhat.
Her late father Ligwa Nombanjinji founded a construction firm in 1981, a business Nombanjinji-Nzama went on to successfully run for many years when Mr Nombanjinji became ill and her groomed-to-lead-the-business brother passed away, while still in her 20s.
That experience taught the PR and marketing-trained Nombanjinji-Nzama a lot about what it takes to run a big operation like Nombanjinji Family Property, but also instilled in her a burning desire to challenge what she considered an unhealthy male hegemony entrenched in the South African construction game.
A 2018 survey by the country’s Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB) found just 11% of sector professionals were women. About a quarter of the biggest construction firms are at least 51% or more female-owned; 34% are black owned.
“When I got into the construction sector, I realised the immense patriarchal challenges and unsolicited red tape for females within the industry,” Nombanjinji-Nzama tells us.
‘We were equal or more advanced in capabilities’
Always ambitious and entrepreneurial, the Soweto-born 39-year-old launched Nombanjinji Construction & Projects in 2008 to push into larger commercial construction and civil works projects. That firm was soon restructured and rebranded as Mbokodo Building with a new motto: Wathint’ Abafazi, Wathint’ Imbokodo (you strike the women, you strike a rock) and the explicit aim of empowering black women – and being exclusively led and owned by black women.
“Upon realising these disheartening unspoken challenges in our industry, I decided to take it upon myself to actively ensure that Mbokodo Building unapologetically creates opportunities and mobilises females to form part of an equitable and inclusive part of the construction sector,” she says.
“The system highly favoured our male counterparts in every way possible even though we were equal or more advanced in capabilities. We saw ourselves becoming an advocate for all women in construction.”
Nombanjinji-Nzama highlights for instance a project where four contractors were assigned work roles. “All the males chose all the big and challenging work amongst themselves and then said my team can do the cleaning of the windows once all the work is done. We always come across such cases, and one needs to have a very tough skin in this industry and not cower.”
Today Mbokodo Building employs 30 people, a few of whom are men, along with 150 sub-contractors with a focus on sectors like low-income housing, educational facilities and civil roads and bridges projects.
Nombanjinji-Nzama, who continues to hold the reins at Nombanjinji Family Property alongside her sister, Phumla Nombanjinji, is proud Mbokodo continues to back “highly skilled female professionals in our industry” who have in the past faced gender discrimination. “They’ve found a home within us as we spoke to the challenges they have been quietly facing for years.”
The Mbokodo managing director was duly rewarded for her efforts by winning the Fabulous Woman Job Creation Award in 2021, a gong she describes as a “colossal honor”. “It means that our advocating and being a catalyst for the inclusion of women in the construction sector doesn’t fall on deaf ears and we are getting seen and heard.”
Nombanjinji-Nzama has big plans for further Mbokodo Building expansion beyond the R200billion (US$12.8 billion) in completed projects down the years, even as COVID-19 remains a huge obstacle.
The R83billion (US$5.3bn) sector shrank 20% in 2020, according to the CIDB, While the value of new plans fell 36.6% between January and November 2020.
CIDB predicts 6%+ expansion in sector value in 2021.
“COVID is the biggest challenge that lies ahead for us as there has been a general decrease in project opportunities and project completion timelines have been severely affected due to ongoing cases,” she says.
Due to the restrictions and market contraction, Mbokodo was forced to reduce and alternate onsite teams to meet COVID protocols, which extended construction project timelines.
Some staff tested positive which provoked short-term site closures. The pandemic also frequently delayed payments while COVID-related paperwork was completed. It also forced Mbokodo to shelve (for now) expansion plans into other African nations.
Soweto life lessons
Nombanjinji-Nzama’s ambition is only stimulated not thwarted by such challenges. She says she is fired on by her segregated Soweto origins, thirst for change and ability to overcome adversity, none more so than the horrific September car hijacking and murder of her husband and father of her three children, Muzi Nzama, in Soweto.
“Growing up in the Soweto township has helped shape me into the woman I am today. We grew up with many disadvantages such as apartheid and segregation which made it difficult to thrive as a black person moreover as a black female,” she says.
“I learnt at an early age that the only way to instill change is to lead by example and implementing change without waiting for governments. I had to take it upon myself to be an activist and advocate for female inclusion in the construction sector.”
COVID going forward: a regaining of momentum?
Amid the global surge in the Omicron COVID-19 variant, Nombanjinji-Nzama is realistic about the challenges faced by South African construction firms, regardless of which gender is running them, in a struggling economy where a third of eligible adults are out of work.
Mbokodo received some salary support during the initial 2020 six-week lockdown but has not benefitted from other government programs as yet, even with a massive infrastructure Bill passed in 2021.
“The industry was one of the hardest hit in our country,” she reflects. “The government came up with plans to alleviate the situation and revive the economy from the crisis by investing around R700billion (US$44bn) in 2021 toward infrastructure development and we are steadily seeing the industry slowly regaining its momentum.”
Mbokodo has applied for some of the new infrastructure contracts.
“It will be a very long and difficult process but there is hope and positivity going forth. I would like to see Mbokodo joining the big female players in construction in the next five years and handling higher value construction projects.”