Building A LEGACY FOR THE NEW GENERATION
Romalda Zulu grew up extremely poor, playing soccer with the eight boys in her family. She used a stokvel she had joined to propel herself into the world of construction, forming her own company in 1999, writes Sue Grant-marshall
It is apartheid-era violence that Romalda Zulu remembers in particular from her childhood.
Her parents were so poor that at the age of eight she was selling sweets at the school in KwaNongoma where she spent her early years.
“I grew up with eight boys, my four brothers and four cousins, and my dream was to work like men do in the industrial sector. No dolls for me. It was always soccer,” says Zulu.
She moved to Durban to be with her parents in Grade 7 and attended KwaMathanda High School in Umlazi township.
“I had to take two taxis to get to school. There was violence all around us. I became an ANC member and got involved in the apartheid struggle. Inkatha would attack us in our homes.”
After she matriculated, Zulu knew her parents couldn’t afford her tertiary education. She was playing women’s soccer and was a member of a stokvel when she heard of a pending construction project through her local ward councillor.
She sent her CV and the councillor, impressed by her energy and leadership, made her the site clerk.
“I knew once that job finished we’d all be out of work and I heard the men discussing opening their own companies. So I did the same and registered Romalda Zulu Civil Construction in 1999.”
Her first project was clearing a road in Umlazi.
“It was worth R54 000, but I had no money, so I sat down with my workers and asked them if I could pay them once the work was done. They agreed.”
The coach of her soccer team helped her with transport to the building site. She borrowed R3 000 from her stokvel with which to buy brooms, spades and petrol, and completed the work on time.
“I then paid my workers and was able to bank R34 000. That became my start-up capital.”
She registered her company on the database of the department of transport in KwaZulu-Natal. She also became the first woman to register with the eThekwini Municipality for construction projects, she says with pride.
Growing the business
Initially, she worked on gravelling roads in rural areas such as KwaNongoma, Underberg and Nkomazi.
“I built a road where I’d grown up because the villagers there asked for one.
“I was so proud of it that I took my three children, then between the ages of six and 20, to see it.”
Today Zulu works on projects with values of up to R1.5 million. Most of her work is with the eThekwini Municipality and KZN department of transport.
The competition was intense. “There were only four of us small, black contractors registered with the [eThekwini] Municipality. Three of them were men and one was a woman. And that woman was me.”
Zulu found herself asking the men for advice, even though she was competing against them.
At one stage she had to hire graders, rollers and other equipment for a project for the department of transport. In spite of having paid the deposit in advance to hire the machines, the company did not hand over the equipment to her.
“They told me the machines were busy elsewhere. It took a huge amount of energy and determination to get them to deliver,” says Zulu.
“I am a calm person and a very good thinker. So I gathered together nine businesspeople like me. We formed a consortium called Club Seven, opened one bank account and put any profit we made into it.
“The first person to get a project borrowed money from the account and paid it back at the end of the job. We paid only 5% interest on our loans because it was, after all, our own money.”
Zulu wants her company to grow by taking on increasingly bigger jobs “and then my construction grading will improve. I want a higher grade – 5CE – so I can build bridges.
“Long term, I want to work all over SA and in all areas of construction.”
Dreams and goals
“I am building a legacy with my company that the new generation will inherit. It means that when I retire, I’ll have an income because the company will still be mine.
“In addition, I plan to build houses for two of my staff members. They’ve worked with me for 15 years and have walked with me through the dark days.”
Moving on and up
“Right now I am building roads in areas that have not yet been developed. In time, I want to build houses there, too.
“So I plan to register with the NHBRC [National Home Builders’ Registration Council] to learn more about the housing construction industry.” ‘What I’ve learnt over
the years is the importance of working closely with and listening carefully to my staff. They are the backbone
of a company.’
TALK TO US
NO DOLLS FOR ME Romalda Zulu’s first project was clearing a road in Umlazi, a township on the east coast of KwaZulu-Natal. It was worth R54 000