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Female pioneers: changing the built environment’s narrative

Nonhlanhla Mayisela.
Nonhlanhla Mayisela, CEO of Izandla Property and national chairperson of the Women’s Property Network.

As we commemorate Women’s Day, Property Wheel spoke with a group of niche female leaders within the property space.

All stalwarts within their own sectors these inspiring businesswomen reflected on their personal journeys, their trials, and tribulations, and how they are tirelessly working towards transforming the property industry for future female generations.

Nonhlanhla Mayisela is the Chief Executive Officer of Izandla Property, a broad-based majority black-women owned and managed property investment company, and the national chairperson of the Women’s Property Network (WPN).

She joined the property industry in 2003 and soon became a property development manager. Young “bright eyed and bushy tailed” Nonhlanhla was one of the few black females in the property development space at the time.

Joining the property industry was never intentional. I had studied accounting and I was well on my way to doing my articles” she says. “At the time, I knew nothing about property, and it all came down to timing and opportunity. I met someone who was involved on the Melrose Arch project we got to talking and the rest was history.”

Seventeen years later her career in property has been both personally and professionally rewarding but navigating the sector as a female has been challenging.

With an industry that fostered little female representation Nonhlanhla knew that she wanted to be a part of a group of women who would work towards changing this narrative. At a point in her career she realized that it was not just about technical experience and climbing the corporate ladder which resulted in a shift of thinking.

I realized there was a much bigger cause and I needed to try and really change the landscape of property for women. There were many times when it seemed too difficult to navigate an environment which was, for the most part, hostile. It can be exceedingly difficult and personally taxing.”

She soon came to realize that her environment was not speaking to who she was at the time which resulted in her taking a short sabbatical. “It was no longer just about personal benefit. It was because the environment at the time had not changed to allow for who I was and what I represented.”

She believes that women bring a different type of diverse thinking to the table with a voice of reason and a sense of grounding required to navigate some of the challenging elements and discussions within a business environment.

For me, women bring a unique skill set to the table. The number of graduates coming out of university, coupled with their academic performance in terms of the female versus male ratio, demonstrates a form of progression. Women are different to men and I think it is fantastic. Women should never try to think and to act like their male counterparts. This difference is what brings value. We should harness this as it is a strong characteristic, it is nothing to be ashamed of.

However, the commitment to gender diversity within her space lacks visible representation for females at a senior level and the environment in which they are expected to operate, and to thrive, has not adapted to accommodate them.

There is a missing step within organisations where stakeholders who have affirmed their commitment to gender diversity at a leadership level often do not see the need and the obligation to facilitate an environment that fosters the success of women.”

This is where the inconsistency comes in. Women are not able to enjoy long-term tenure and there is an expectation for women to come into these environments and to fit into the pre-existing mould.”

When you bring someone into a new environment you are doing so because you value their opinions and you are committing to their growth within that space.

We can never make gender diversity the sole responsibility of women, herein lies the issue time and time again. This will not be sustainable as no one is dealing with and taking collective responsibility. This is where we are going to see the wheel starting to turn and seeing the change that we want on a permanent basis.”

Nonhlanhla’s journey continues and the two hats she wears, as CEO of Izandla and chairperson of WPN, reinforces her ‘why’.

However, the balancing act of being a mother, a wife and a female within a leadership role is challenging. Nonhlanhla believes that most professional women try to find the so-called balance which for her is a unicorn – it does not exist. “We are continuously in pursuit of this. I am slowly realizing that perhaps balance does not exist, and I am accepting that this is ok. The sacrifices made between my personal relationships and my family is not balanced. What helps me to keep grounded is that I acknowledge that it is a fluid process.”

Nonhlanhla believes that it is about being kind to yourself, reflecting that things are not balanced but they are not falling apart. We will have good and bad days. “As women, it is part of our DNA to want to do everything and to take care of everyone and, to still succeed in what we need to do which is impossible. I am slowly accepting this reality and I am ok with it.”

Follow Nonhlanhla on and Women’s Property Network on Twitter.

“Architecture is not my complete passion, rather the realm in which I have chosen to practice architecture i.e. public buildings and public spaces which have the potential to create positive change for communities drives my passion”.

Ashleigh Killa, co-founder of theMAAK.

Ashleigh Killa is the co-founder of the Cape Town based architectural studio, theMAAK. Her studio strongly focuses on public projects which prioritizes community engagement and skills development.

“To embed yourself into the existing patterns, knowledge systems and needs of a community through rigorous engagement becomes a real opportunity to create appropriate and relevant built solutions that can be identified with.”

One of theMAAK’s recent projects includes the TB Testing Lab for the Desmond Tutu Health Foundation in Masiphumelele in Cape Town.

The TB Testing Lab for the Desmond Tutu Health Foundation in Masiphumelele in Cape Town.

These laboratories and administrative facilities enable the organisation to further their research into TB, servicing the community and making strides in the medical world for its ground-breaking work.

Graduating with her Master’s in Architecture Ashleigh consciously went into her industry as her own person not allowing the industry to mould her into what she should be as a female architect.

“I lean into my feminine qualities when I go onto site. My qualities, tools and characteristics accompany me, and I make the environment my own. A direct outcome of this is that it creates a team atmosphere based on mutual respect rather than that of a hierarchical one.”

As a prevalent female architect Ashleigh has been fortunate in that she has not been largely subjected to bias and predispositions but she believes that her industry has a long way to go in the move towards female representation within the built environment space.

Considering the small things like what to wear on site is one of the everyday pre-requisites for Ashleigh and other female architects: “If we can achieve a greater awareness between both female and male psyches in terms of what is happening on site for both genders it would be a great start. When we can acknowledge our differences and support and promote these in productive ways we will be heading into a powerful space.”

Within my generation shifts are already taking place, but the industry still suffers from past biases and historical gender imbalances. Transformation is on the rise but there cannot be equality while there is still inequality.”

Looking at her past working teams they have all been male dominated and Ashleigh believes that it is her responsibility to seek out more female teams. This drives consciousness within her own practice on how to be more inclusive.

“I will never know everything about architecture, and I look at every project as an opportunity to learn something new – a new material, a new site or a new community. It is an attitude of being curious about the world coupled with taking each thing as it comes.”

Ashleigh encourages aspiring architects to take themselves into the industry and to not allow the industry to dictate what you need to be. “Find your niche and lean into that.”

Follow theMAAK on Instagram.

Nonku Ntshona, founder and CEO of Nonku Ntshona & Associates Quantity Surveyors (NNAQS).

Nonku Ntshona, CEO of Nonku Ntshona and Associates Quantity Surveyors (NNAQS) founded her practice in 2007 in her house.

Previously having worked as an Associate Director for Turner and Townsend the edge she possesses drove her in the direction of becoming a female entrepreneur within the Quantity Surveying space.

Fast forward thirteen years, NNAQS was the recipient of the African Construction Awards in May 2018 under the ‘Transformation’ category and the PMR Diamond Arrow Awards in May 2018 for acknowledgement in enhancing the interests of women in the construction industry.

Nonku aspires to be a catalyst for change to previously disadvantaged communities in the sense of women. With a staff complement of fifteen employees she ensures that she predominantly hires females who she can mentor and who have gone through their own journeys of becoming registered Quantity Surveyors to start their own businesses.

My drive has always been to encourage woman to enter this sector. Women are not aware of another world that is out there which offers exciting positions. I feel that women possess the exact qualities that this industry requires. We are pedantic, and we pay attention to detail, our industry needs this type of personality the most when you are dealing with big fund clients – they require people who will be precise and accurate with their investments”.

Nonku’s twenty-two years of experience in the built environment has not come without its challenges, starting out young created the perception that she was not capable of doing her job.

I would meet with clients to do a presentation and looking at the various faces in the room, it showed me that they weren’t convinced of my capabilities or that I was the kind of person they wanted to bring on-board. They would ask me technical questions about things that I knew from my studies and my gathered work experience. Many times, I’ve been in a meeting for a project appointment and I was the only woman in the room.”

She advises future female Quantity Surveyors to believe in themselves and to have confidence. Speak with conviction and remain focused knowing that when you embark on your career this is where you need to be.

There is so much to learn, not just about Quantity Surveying. You meet and work with different people in teams and a couple of months later there is a completed building that you have a story to tell about.”

Be resilient. You are going to be in situations like being on site where construction workers will whistle at you. if you are not confident and strong you won’t survive this industry.”

Follow Nonku and NNAQS on Twitter.

Kim Pfaff-Karg, Chief Investment Officer of Spear REIT Limited.

Kim Pfaff-Karg is the Chief Investment Officer of Spear REIT Limited. Kim joined several other leading women at the JSE listed company but she was the first female member appointed to the company’s executive committee.

In her strategic role across the business Kim possesses over fifteen years’ experience in the listed and non-listed real estate sector.

Kim attained her BSc (Hons) in Property Studies through the University of Cape Town and she is a member and assessor of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).

“The property industry, with its diversity, is an exciting place for women to be and I believe there will be many more prominent female appointments as more talented women feed into the property chain with the opportunity to add value.”

She strongly advocates for the conversation around money. When a women’s wealth base grows financial stability and empowerment accompanies the freedom to make better choices for yourself, your family, and your community. 

Many women are very capable but need to be encouraged to take the initiative. I believe that it starts at home, fathers need to encourage their daughters through confidence and support.”

Having fulfilled many roles within a male dominated industry she has had to fend for herself many times. However, Kim believes that if you work hard and excel in your field you will be rewarded and respected.

“I am all for diversity and women stepping into leadership roles. Women see things differently; we need gender balance but with credit”.

Kim’s advice from a book she has recently read, ‘The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom’: “Be impeccable with your word, do not take anything personally, do not make assumptions and always do your best.”

*Kim’s disclaimer: Unless it really is personal and in that case, you need to own the responsibility!

Follow Kim on Twitter.

Zahira Asmal, urbanist and director of The City.

“My observations and experiences during Apartheid, especially the Group Areas Act, had a lasting impression on me. Space, and access to space in particular, became an important matter for me.”

Zahira Asmal is an urbanist and the director of The City, a research, publishing and placemaking agency she founded in 2010. Although focused on South African cities, her projects are inclusive, amorphous, and transnational.

She works with social, cultural, and spatial challenges in post-colonial environments and strives to create representational equity in the built landscapes of South African cities.

All of this space in South Africa yet many of us were not permitted to access it. How do we deal with the fact that even in our democracy, justice was not served? Individual and collective healing has not happened and that most South Africans still live with and continue to suffer the spatial indignities of the past, in the present?

Zahira began her career in the built environment in 2007 as the Head of Research and Development at Sir David Adjaye’s London Office where she worked with the world-renowned architect on his book, ‘Adjaye Africa Architecture’ and exhibition, Urban Africa – a tribute to African metropolitan architecture. Through this opportunity, she had the privilege of working with and being mentored by awe inspiring and talented women

Two years later, she entered the local built environment sector with her project ‘Designing South Africa’ which she later registered as a non-profit company called ‘Designing for All’. Zahira published her first book titled ‘Reflections & Opportunities” in 2012 in English and Brazilian Portuguese and presented it in seventeen cities worldwide. Her Movement series which examine the socio-political, economic, and cultural environments shaping South Africa’s big cities, sold out.

Zahira has participated and contributed to various local and international exhibitions. Most notably, representing South Africa at the international Architecture & Design Showcase in London in 2012 where she curated an exhibition entitled ‘A Nation Under Construction’ which portrayed the story of South Africa’s contemporary urbanism, architecture, and social development.

In collaboration with the City of Johannesburg and various stakeholders, she initiated a placemaking project at Johannesburg’s prominent Park Station to re-imagine its underused and abandoned spaces and to create a welcoming space for all. Zahira sites this project as the most challenging of her career. She shares her experiences in conceptualising and developing the project in a dynamic multi-media performance lecture titled, “Welcome to Johannesburg” where she pulls together the threads of South Africa’s spatial history: colonialism, apartheid, forced removals, migrant labour, the new Afripolitan city. She critiques a development ideology that celebrates modernity, rather than successfully integrating the past into the present. She imagines a pan-African vision, where government, citizens, the diaspora all contribute equally to the making of the city. “Welcome to Johannesburg” was presented in Cape Town, Marrakech, Rotterdam and in Paris.

Her current project, See is a multi-year transnational project which brings together cities, institutions, activists, artists, designers, and other creatives to exchange ideas, debate and develop methodologies to bring about representational equity in the public life of postcolonial cities – through re-scripting built landscapes and public iconography. For See, she has partnered with various institutions in Cape Town and the Netherlands. Architects, artists, urbanists, designers, and digital storytellers are invited to participate and contribute.

I would like to see more networks and institutions that support women on various levels of education, mentorship, construction and business development. In addition, the obstacles to our development and advancement should be removed.”

We need to discover and to unlock ways in which we may match South Africa’s vast potential with opportunities for its people – democratically.”

Follow The City on Facebook and Instagram and SEE on Instagram

By Gemma-Louise Perrins