Real Estate strikes a chord with most South Africans, whether from a personal or professional vantage point. For most citizens, ownership of real estate is often preluded by a long, uphill journey. As more people and businesses are in a position to acquire and develop property, so the job opportunities increase. And livelihoods are directly impacted.
Our STEAM Room guest aptly points this out, stating that activities in the sector become “the catalyst for socio-economic development”. The construction sector, amidst challenges in 2019, employed over 8% of the country’s labour force and output accounted for around 4% of gross domestic product (GDP). The real estate sector on the other hand, together with the finance and business services sectors, significantly contributed to the increase in the country’s real GDP in 2019.
This year has seen the entire economy suffer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This tragedy has also made us relook how we can do business going forward. It has made us reimagine a new normal. We are excited to have Neo Sekhantso, a young and dynamic professional in the real estate sector, shed more light on what the sector has been experiencing.
Tell us about yourself and how you came to be in the property and real estate sector?
I am 33 years old and am a qualified Professional Quantity Surveyor working as a Property/Real Estate Development Manager for one of the largest Asset Management Companies in the Continent. I live and work in Gauteng.
I studied a BSc Construction Studies and a BSc (Honours) in Quantity Surveying at the University of Cape Town between 2005 and 2008. I also completed the SAPOA and UCT GSB Property Development Programme in 2017. To enhance my skills-set and further qualify myself for a move into the asset management space, I completed a Post Graduate Diploma in Business (PDBA) at The Gordon Institute of Business Science in 2019 and then did a short online course in Commercial Real Estate Analysis and Planning with the MIT School of Architecture and Planning.
I began my career at MLC Cape Town, starting off as a graduate then worked my way to Quantity Surveyor. I then worked at AECOM for five years; first as a Quantity Surveyor in their Cape Town office, before I was promoted to a Senior Quantity Surveyor position and ultimately an Associate Director in their Sandton office. In 2018, I changed disciplines within the Built Environment and started work as a Real Estate Development Manager at an Asset Management company in their Properties Division (Unlisted).
Why this interest in property and real estate?
I firmly believe that infrastructure (roads, railway, dams, bridges, ports, powerplants etc.) and the Built Environment is the catalyst for socio-economic development. This belief is demonstrated by the fact that when governments want to develop or grow an economy, infrastructure and built environment spending is often increased. In addition, expenditure in this sector creates job opportunities within communities and supplies better facilities for social and commercial use.
What does your typical workday look like?
My role entails Property Development Management from the ideation phase; initial market studies and town planning; feasibility studies and presentation to the relevant internal bodies for project approval; design and construction phases; to the completion and hand over of a property asset (be it a new retail centre or office park) to property asset management teams and/or client(s). Typically, this includes the management of design teams including Project Managers, Quantity Surveyors, Architects, Engineers, and other construction professionals. It also includes being part of a deal team that is involved in the internal approval processes.
My typical workday involves several meetings and a lot of stakeholder management. Interpersonal communication, writing skills, management skills, and an understanding of technical construction-related matters and real estate finance are key skills required as a Property Development Manager.
What has been the impact of COVID-19 on the real estate sector?
The response to the pandemic has meant different things for the various parts of the real estate market. For developments and construction sites it has meant stalled projects and the shutting down of construction sites locally and abroad. For real estate professionals, it has meant working from home and continuing with design, cost management, and project management for projects on-site and those in the pipeline.
From a design perspective, there has also been a lot of rethinking and thought leadership. Office spaces, retail, and the built environment must consider our needs post-COVID-19, especially in relation to allowances for space per person to allow for social distancing. Also to be considered is permanent working-from-home solutions and its effects on the population’s health; the impact of online shopping on brick and mortar stores; and a myriad of other health considerations (AECOM : How Corona Virus May Change the Future of Work, 2020).
An already ailing construction industry has felt the impact of the pandemic. The socio-economic impact of the shutting down of construction sites of urgently required bulk infrastructure and facilities for communities will be alleviated somewhat by the new local Level 4 lockdown conditions which will allow some key projects to continue.
Which measures do you think can help the real estate sector recover? What steps can be taken by the key stakeholders?
This is a very complex question and it requires a multi-pronged and well thought out and researched solution. However, based on my observations and readings, the following interventions will be required in the short term (the next 6 to 12 months).
Construction sites need to strictly comply with the regulations and guidelines as set out by the Department of Labour and Health. Furthermore, Health and Safety plans and protocols will have to be reviewed to include measures for preventing and containing communicable diseases. Landlords, retailers, manufacturers, etc. need to be particularly vigilant and provide the necessary screening and personal protective equipment (PPE) required to ensure that infections are kept low.
Government has already thought through the re-opening of all industries in a phased manner, considering the impact on the economy and the risk profile of each industry. Industry leaders and the government must continue working together in ensuring the survival of the industry and the safekeeping of human lives during this period.
In the long term, there may be a shift in thinking around the built environment: how people work and learn, and where they work and learn. A shift in the design of office, industrial, learning, healthcare, and retail space; in the thinking around business nodes and their distance from people’s homes; in the spatial and urban design thinking and transportation facilities and the quality thereof from a health and safety perspective (AECOM : How Corona Virus May Change the Future of Work, 2020). There will also be a focus on technologically integrated design to allow remote connection of people, and touchless and remote operation of facilities.
The Built Environment and Real Estate Market, however, is a resilient one. In my opinion, as long as there are people that need spaces to work, live, learn, heal, etc. the market will rebound in some shape. However, I believe it will not be business as usual and the future may not be what we expect. As an industry and as users of the Built Environment, we need to continue to be proactive and innovative as we have been in the past and adapt to the future.
Many of the ideas and ideals we have been engaging through Fourth Industrial Revolution dialogues these past couple of years are now critical for our survival. We have no choice but to adapt. Many have lost their businesses. Many have lost their jobs. Many have lost their lives.
As we bring our STEAM Room COVID-19 series to an end, we hope you are able to take in the priceless information we have gathered from these discussions with industry insiders and use these nuggets to help us move forward. The STEAM Room will be back with more insightful interviews and relevant topics from more remarkable women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics.
About the Author
Amandla Kwinana is a strategic content and communications specialist and member of the Womandla Foundation STEAM Committee.
About the STEAM Room
The STEAM Room is a space for women in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) to explore innovative solutions to the challenges facing our communities and share intriguing stories from their respective worlds. The platform also provides an opportunity for STEAM entrepreneurs to profile their ventures. As with a traditional steam room, women step out of the STEAM Room feeling rejuvenated.