Robben Island Museum appoints first female executive manager in 24 years

Maphootla Makhoalibe is Robben Island Museum’s chief infrastructure officer.

As Women’s Month draws to a close, the Robben Island Museum (RIM) has announced the appointment of its first female executive manager since being declared a national museum in 1997.

Maphootla Makhoalibe joined the team earlier this month as the chief infrastructure officer responsible for infrastructure and facilities management on the island.

She joins the current executive management team, along with RIM CEO Mava Dada, chief financial officer, Blayne Crocker, as well as acting chief heritage officer, Thabo Seshoka.

Ms Makhoalibe was born in Johannesburg but also grew up in Lesotho and Cape Town.

“This is my second stint in Cape Town and I’m only a month in. Thus far, I’ve lived in five countries on four continents.”

She currently lives in the city centre.

She said she grew up in a very accepting family, where one was always encouraged to follow their dreams.

“My parents are non-traditionalists and are always open to new ideas. I guess I can attribute this to their own exploration of the world, living and studying abroad earlier in their adulthood.”

Growing up, she sketched a lot, she said, and so she knew she “had an affinity” for the creative arts.

She said maths, physics and geography were also her subjects of choice at school, so when deciding which career path to pursue, the built environment engineering – architecture, was the obvious choice as it encompassed all her interests. “I ended up acquiring a Bachelor’s degree in architecture: design from the University of Johannesburg and a Master’s degree in property development and planning from London South Bank University in London.”

Ms Makhoalibe has over 19 years experience in her colourful career of corporate facilities operations; built environment infrastructure, project management; finance; and management consulting.

During her career, she has travelled to different countries, including a few in Africa and the Middle East, America and the United Kingdom, building her experience in complex investment projects and portfolio performance; network optimisation and operation strategies.

At RIM, Ms Makhoalibe’s tasks include leading a team of about 80 members and ensuring that the division is managed according to the built environment and heritage approved standards.

She will also be responsible for Robben Island’s restoration and conservation efforts as per RIM’s integrated conservation management plan and contribute to towards the preservation of Robben Island World Heritage Site’s universal value from an infrastructure point of view.

Ms Makhoalibe said throughout her career in a male-dominated industry, one of the key hardships, especially at the very early stages, was being a young black woman. “However, I’ve since strategised, mapped my path and managed to navigate around the resistance.”

She said one of the ways she coped with this challenge was to remain resolute. “However, on many occasions I have been pulled up by my boot straps by many men in the built environment industry and other business sectors who believed in me.

“Once they saw my passion and drive, they were all ears and opened doors for me. My take is to let your work do the talking for you.”

While Ms Makhoalibe joins the RIM team at a time that women, especially those who fought in the struggle, were being celebrated, she was also appointed in a challenging time, brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the museums alleged mismanagement, among other things.

However, she said RIM is currently reinventing itself and strategies and processes are in place to create change.

“My vision is to advance the innovation strategy by way of implementing integrated built environment design, optimised operations and smart technologies.

“However, we cannot deny the impact that Covid-19 has had on the whole tourism, arts and culture industries.”

RIM spokesperson Morongoa Ramaboa said Ms Makhoalibe’s appointment was a validation that women are and have always been ready to lead in strategic positions.

“We are excited about Ms Makhoalibe’s arrival and have full confidence that her broad and unique experience will be valuable for RIM.

“This is certainly a win for women during Women’s Month and we wish her all the best for the journey that lies ahead.”