A woman of action and, sometimes, joyful abandon, Ntokozo Sithole is either expending leadership energy at Enstra or powerwalking to the Hellenic rhythm of musician Yanni. Her multidimensional life also includes mentoring those with the spark of promise, sharing her story at women’s conferences and volunteering in community projects.
When you’ve helped to increase the maths pass rate at a Richards Bay school from 56% to 90% in three years; transformed a factory; managed, mediated in and curtailed a fierce industrial strike; given birth to a fully operational facility from a greenfield operation nine months before, and reduced one company’s waste by 48% by environmental consciousness, you can afford to chuckle.
Ntokozo Sithole has done all that and more, after starting her engineering mission in class. ‘While being schooled in Limpopo, I met an American chemical engineer missionary,’ she explains. ‘His interest in the technical side of life was intriguing and my love of engineering flourished.’
After completing a one-year university bridging course, Carlton Paper rolled into her life, unfurling a bursary opportunity to study mechanical engineering in pulp and paper technology at Natal Technikon.
’I was the only female in the class for the entire three-year course,’ she recalls. ‘I was constantly asked why I couldn’t become just a nurse or a secretary.’
Work brought little relief from testosterone overload, as she discovered there were no ablutions nor protective clothing for women, and no mentors nor role models. That is until a guardian angel appeared in the form of a Swazi process engineer at Mondi Richards Bay, who would become a ‘spiritual sister’ and an exemplar to emulate.
Another Mondi manager believed sufficiently in Ntokozo to promote her to production manager in 2007. ‘It propelled me into a wonderful world and unleashed my personal drive, and passion for leadership and people empowerment,’ she enthuses.
As manager at Kimberly Clark’s Enstra Mill since 2018, Ntokozo is back where it all started for her as a student in 1991.
Now, however, she has heaps more responsibility on her well-qualified shoulders, taking daily care of safety, health, quality, finance, production, engineering, projects, technology, people, learning and continuous improvement.
As if that wasn’t enough, before doing any of it with confidence, Ntokozo had to restore the basics, establishing team structures and direction, as managers had come and gone regularly in the years before her arrival.
Her best-laid plan of preparing thoroughly to prevent surprises has never worked, she admits, and things usually end up out of sync, with challenges lobbed from left and right. She recalls a time when her authenticity and transparency attracted flak in corporate corridors. ‘I am a glutton for pain, which manufacturing delivers in bucket loads,’ she laughs. ‘But the dynamics give me energy and drive to succeed. I thoroughly enjoy my interactions with team members at all levels, talking about life and helping them exploit their potential.
‘A great joy for me is admiring the workmanship in our products displayed in store. Customers may not know the sweat and tears involved, but they know they add value to their lives.’
At Enstra, Ntokozo believes she has transformed mill leadership and awakened belief in her staff that they can match their abilities with ambition to achieve more.
‘As a leader, I choose to guide, resource and coach others, holding them accountable, while being fair and firm, but caring and compassionate.’
Just as she nurtures team members, she is in her element watching the progress of her children, 25-year-old Sabelo, two years into a stint as comedy club DJ when Covid turned the tables; daughter Thobile (21), completing a media degree, and Mpho-ya-Bophelo, coping with a disrupted high school year.
Books are another great love and Ntokozo juggles several at a time, mixing, eg, the inspirational ‘I have Life’, about Alison Botha’s ordeal with murderous satanists, with the spiritual ‘The Celestine Prophecy’ and the wisdom of ‘The Obstacle is the Way’. She then rounds off the day with NCIS or a home design offering from HGTV.