Meet Magretha Vlok, COO of Lithon Holdings

Magretha Vlok isn’t most people’s idea of a typical engineer. Colourful and confident, with a sense of style to match – she firmly believes that “beige isn’t a colour” and has been known on occasion to team tartan with African and animal prints. This newly appointed COO of Lithon Holdings brings energy, experience and a sought-after skill set to the table. 

Magretha started out as a civil engineer but is quick to mention that she’s never enjoyed building roads. As she puts it, “tar is not my colour”. Several years into her career, she took on an honour’s degree in structures and went on to head up the structural engineering department of a large Johannesburg-based firm for 12 years. She joined Lithon in early 2021 and is currently in the process of completing a master’s degree in project management. 

Magretha’s impressive portfolio includes many notable heritage sites. Among them are the Liliesleaf Heritage site where Nelson Mandela was captured, the Nelson Mandela Museum in Soweto, the Women’s Living Heritage Monument in Pretoria, the June 16 Memorial Acre in Soweto, and high profile projects like the Soweto Theatre, Oprah Winfrey School, and Mill Park Footbridge. 

We recently chatted to her about engineering, history, dignity, respect, a 1969 Porsche, her goats (she has a herd of them) and most things in between.

What attracted you to a career in engineering?

A large part of it probably had to do with growing up in a very small Karoo town where there was always the most amazing sense of community. I think I’ve wanted to engineer that same sense of community for others. On another level, I’ve always believed that our purpose in life is to contribute to society and make a difference wherever we can. Engineering has given me a way to do that by allowing me to build infrastructure that not only improves life in poorer communities but also builds dignity. I’m passionate about helping to build dignity because with dignity comes self-respect – and when people have respect for themselves and start to care for themselves, they’re able to start caring for the community around them.

When and how did you join the Lithon team?

I joined Lithon in early 2021  when an acquaintance suggested that I might be able to make a difference at the company with my specific set of skills. They hit a soft spot when they invited me to cycle the Desert Dash with them.

What attracted you to the company?

I love the adventurous side of the Lithon family. I cycled the Desert Dash in 2020 as part of the team (before officially joining the company) and you really get to know people when you’re cycling through the night – especially at 3am when things aren’t going too well! I also really appreciate the personal, family and community values that the company upholds. Lithon wants to drive change through planning, designing, and developing urban infrastructure, securing funding for ongoing upliftment projects, and providing expert advice and mentoring. Being part of a visionary team that is committed to creating a new, better world for tomorrow, and that cares about the legacy it leaves behind, really excites me.

You’ve worked on some important heritage projects, which has been your favourite?

South Africa has an incredibly rich history with many stories that deserve to be told, and it’s been a privilege to contribute to telling some of them. If I had to pick one project, it would be the Women’s Living Heritage Monument at Lilian Ngoyi Square (previously Strijdom Square). The site itself has seen both hatred and heroism over the years. It was here that Barend Strydom killed eight people and injured 16 others on 15 November 1988, and it was from the same square that Lilian Ngoyi led 20 000 women in a march to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 to protest women being forced to carry passbooks. The monument includes an art gallery and museum and pays tribute to Lillian Ngoyi, Sophia Williams-de Bruyn, Helen Joseph and Rahima Moosa – women who had a huge impact on the country’s history. From an engineering point of view, it was a very complex project structurally – it features some of the largest rammed earth walls in South Africa – which made it both challenging and exciting to work on.

What’s one engineering project you would love to have worked on?

A few years back, a few of us came up with a wonderful integrated waste solution for Jinja. This town in Uganda was facing a mounting waste problem because people were dumping their rubbish next to the Nile River after the weekly market. Tragically, as the plastic in this waste began to decompose, it created Leachate, a highly toxic by-product which was spilling into the river. We wanted to create ways for local people to separate waste at home and in schools, and incentivise them with tokens that could be used to buy food, stationery and bicycles. Sadly, this project didn’t go ahead.

Engineering has always been a largely male-dominated field. Have you found that being a female engineer has helped or hindered your career?

Honestly, I don’t think gender should ever be a consideration in the workplace – we should all be judged by the work we produce. And if I’m good at what I do, what does it matter if I’m a woman?

Tell us about your other career as an aspiring stud goat farmer…

I adore goats for their inquisitive and sometimes rebellious natures and have a herd of 300 Kalahari Red and Boer Goats on a farm in the Free State. Thanks to my five gorgeous stud rams, we’re looking forward to a baby boom in September and I’ll be flying up to bottle feed a few of the 400 lambs we’re expecting – definitely my favourite time of year. I’m also hoping to show my goats at an international competition one day when I’m grown up and would ultimately love to become a goat show judge, but that’s another story for another day…

You share two interests with your father. Can you tell us about them?

My father and I both have a passion for vintage cars and have several that we take on road trips – my favourite being a red 1969 Porsche. Our other shared interest is guns, although strictly for target practice. I have never and would never shoot anything that breathes.

What’s on your To Do list post-Covid?

So many adventures! I love running, and as soon as travel is possible again, I’ll be boarding a plane to Tokyo. I had planned to run all six major marathons – London, Boston, Chicago, Berlin, New York and Tokyo – over six consecutive years, but still had the Tokyo Marathon to go when Covid hit.