Some people seem to be destined to find solutions to common problems. That was certainly the case for Bulali Mdontsane, whose path led him to becoming the developer, aided by uMaStandi, of Singleton Heights, located at 17 Casper Street in Protea Glen.
Originally from the Eastern Cape, Bulali began his career obtaining a degree in engineering with a focus on chemical engineering. He then obtained a Pr-Tech Engineer designation with the Engineering Council of South Africa and secured a master’s in engineering management at UJ. His forays in academia continued yet again, more recently, by earning an MBA from Wits University.
However, instead of ending up in engineering, Bulali’s passion led him to expanding his passions into becoming a property entrepreneur. “I consider myself an African child, and I saw all these various problems, one of which was the issue of human settlements,” he explains. Together with uMaStandi, Bulali is now doing his part to address the need for safe, comfortable accommodation in the townships.
”The Singleton Heights project is particularly significant to me. The building is a tribute to my uncle, who was a migrant worker working in the mines and had to endure living in hot, unpleasant conditions,” he continues.
The main aim of the Singleton Heights development is to provide clean, comfortable accommodation for people who are working in Johannesburg but who originally hail from far away.
“It is for people who move out of the homes they grew up in and they don’t want the backroom type of space; they want a safe space where they can park their cars, but they also like the communal lifestyle of the township,” he explains.
The double story property consists of 30 bachelor apartments that are 25 square metres in size, and each have their own dedicated parking bay. They are designed to be lock-up-and-go accommodation, 29 of the thirty are let, and the remaining one is for a live-in caretaker.
On the cards for the near future is a laundromat, and Bulali is also considering adding a space out of which precooked and hot food could be sold. Both would create entrepreneurial opportunities for other small businesses in the community.
“I was brought up with the philosophy of Ubuntu, which I still believe in, and with these plans, I believe there would be shared value. Lift as You rise, I would garner greater value as the landlord, my tenants would have greater convenience, and the entrepreneurs involved would be able to share the market. The aim is to uplift the community together,” he enthuses.
Bulali explains that for the most part the development of the apartment block proceeded smoothly, with construction beginning in February 2022, and finishing in July. After final inspections were completed in August, the apartments were ready to be let. A notable achievement of the project is that it was completed two months ahead of schedule.
Singleton Heights is not Bulali’s first foray into property development and ownership, but it is his most ambitious to date, which is why he turned to uMaStandi. Previously, he acted as the project manager on his first two developments, sourcing the required contractors on his own. Those developments were smaller in scope involving the conversion and extension of existing structures and consisting of six units in Durban and in Soweto, respectively.
Bulali’s comprehensive academic background served him well, with his engineering experience helping him manage the various puzzle pieces that go into successful development, while the MBA helped him with the management and financial aspects. But, he explains, working with uMaStandi has helped him manage his property portfolio in a more professional manner as well as avoid some of the major traps and pitfalls involved in an owner-run development.
No project is without its challenges, and Bulali had to contend with two major ones. The first was dealing with the inefficiencies of the municipality and utilities, which he acknowledges he underestimated. This slowed the process at times.
The second was the ‘construction mafia’ – third parties who demanded 30% stake in the project. This challenge he had accounted for, he relates, having ensured that his construction team was locally sourced. Bulali also ensured that he communicated extensively with the local councillor and with the local community ahead of time, which forestalled individuals’ attempts to hijack the project for their own gain.
“I learnt that rule number one is to always obtain community involvement before bringing development into the area,” he relates.
His advice for anyone who wanted to get into property development is to bear in mind that every phase of this business is about people; from aligning with the neighbours, ensuring you have buy-in from political leaders and the community, being able to connect with people is essential. Bulali also stresses the importance of looking beyond one’s own financial gain, a value which aligns him with uMaStandi’s purpose.
“I think as developers we have a role to play in changing the face of the spaces that we walk across and addressing the housing problem in South Africa. And for me, my chosen space is the township and I do believe that my mission and what TUHF does through uMaStandi, is linked. No one is coming to save us. People need safe living spaces and I think we can be the solution we are waiting for,” says Bulali.