Inspiring woman: How Nothemba Mlonzi made it in a men’s world

BY TAI CHISHAKWE - AUGUST 11, 2015

Meeting attorney Nothemba Mlonzi in the swish dining area of Port Elizabeth’s Isango Gate Boutique Hotel and Spa – which she owns, it is hard to resist her infectious laughs, confidence, optimism and welcoming personality. How does someone achieve so much and still remain so humble and grounded?

During the interview, she even laughs at the idea of her being ‘successful’. I insist, though, and try to remind her that she is a self-made woman, who rose from nowhere to become a respected attorney, an acting High Court Judge, an academic, hotelier, philanthropist, has served on several corporate boards, and made history by establishing the first ever 100% black woman-owned oil plant in South Africa.

Her story begins in rural Lusikisiki, in the Transkei, where she finally settled after moving from town to town with her parents as her father was a forester in the then Republic of the Transkei.

“I never really set out to be an entrepreneur - perhaps it was in me somewhere. My mother ran a General Dealer in Lusikisiki and she never gave me lunch money for school. Instead, she would buy me chocolate eclairs, which I would sell at break time.

“When I went to boarding school, my father bought me an ‘instant photo’ camera, which became a huge hit. It was money from that business that I later used to apply to get into university,” Nothemba remarked.

After Matriculating at Lourdes Senior Secondary School – she is still an ardent Catholic to this day; she tried to pursue her dream to study physio-therapy at the University of Cape Town. It did not work out, owing to apartheid restrictions.

She then enrolled for a BSc at Unitra (now Walter Sisulu University) hoping it would lead to Medicine, which was to be introduced the following year – despite her father insisting that she studies teaching.

“I just wanted something that would equip me to be independent and run my own operation – whatever it was,” Nothemba reminisced. To her disappointment, BSc students where not going to be automatically accepted into second year Medicine, but would have to start from first year again.

“Being the first born in a family of six, I knew that my family did not have enough money to keep me school for long while I started afresh in Medicine.”

After explaining her dilemma to the Dean in her faculty, she was transferred to law school.  It was during her studies that she joined a successful black-owned law firm, called Sangoni Incorporated, in Umthatha - working during the day and studying at night.

For her articles, the same firm sent her to Butterworth, where she later opened her own practice in 1992 – with just a desk and an attorney's gown. She also completed an LLB with the University of Fort Hare, within one year, and in 1996 pursued an MBA at Stellenbosch University.

“However, I soon realised that the few opportunities in Butterworth were limiting me – despite having a very busy practice and being one of the first black conveyancers in the town,” Nothemba said.

“After initially moving my business to Pietermaritzburg, I ended up relocating to East London in 1999 with the aim of gaining more exposure in the corporate sector, which was my initial desire going into law in the first place.

“I also expanded into Port Elizabeth and my first major clients were the Buffalo City Municipality, the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality as well as the Coega Development Corporation, primarily focussing on land acquisitions among other things.”

Around this time, she bought a dilapidated property in Summerstrand, PE, hoping to transform it into a high-rise office block for her firm. However, due to municipal zoning regulations, that building later metamorphosed into Isango Gate – “and without a prior business plan; just one step leading to the next,” Nothemba added. 

In 2001, she got her first appointment as an acting High Court Judge in Cape Town and later served in the same position in the South Gauteng High Court. That same year, she started working around her biggest project yet – Econ Oil & Energy.

“Econ Oil & Energy came about after attending a few workshops on business opportunities. It took me three years of exploring that opportunity until I landed my first contract in 2003. We have been growing steadily from there,” Nothemba said.

It supplied 18% of Eskom’s fuel oil needs between 2003 and 2006; 60% from 2006 to 2009 and in 2013, Econ Oil & Energy secured a five-year, R5.29 billion contract from the power utility.

Over the years, she has also served on the boards of the Civil Aviation Authority of SA, Amatola Water, the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI), Downtown Music Hub and Eastern Province Cricket.

“I am proud of my contributions to those boards. My philosophy serving on them was about making a lasting impact and gaining knowledge that I could later use elsewhere. I have never been on any board for remuneration. I was unpopular at one board for refusing that we meet as often for the sake of pocketing fees. You feel good when you are on a board with no other intentions but just to serve,” Nothemba said.

On how she juggles such a busy schedule, she said that she tries to commit to the things she is passionate about.

“I also believe in proper governance as well as in building effective teams and structures so that at the end of the day, you do not have to work so hard as a leader,” she described.

She believes anyone can make it in business in South Africa if they are focussed and determined.

“What I also have found to be crucial is your attitude – how you put yourself out there and approach and relate with others. If people see a business person in you, they will talk business with you without emphasising their focus on gender and colour at times,” she said.

“Nowadays, there is BEE, but it’s not a given. One just has to be able to wake up, stand up and do something about their dream.”

As a mother of two, her spare time is usually spent at home and she loves to read.