Henkel South Africa appointing its first female plant manager Thelma Mamatlepa
Thelma Mamatlepa

In a traditionally male dominated manufacturing environment, one South African woman is breaking the glass ceiling. With determination and hard work, Thelma Mamatlepa has become the first woman in consumer goods and industrial company, Henkel South Africa’s history to manage their factory in Alrode, Johannesburg.

Mamatlepa, 38, of Greenstone is a graduate of the University of Johannesburg and holds a Bachelors of Technology in Chemical Engineering and a Masters in Engineering Management, although this was never her chosen career path.

“My ambition was always to become a medical doctor, but after being put on the waiting list for admission into the then Medical University of South Africa (Medunsa) I was afraid they would take too long to get back to me, so I went with my second choice of chemical engineering, and the rest is history,” she says.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is deeply anchored in Henkel’s strategy and corporate culture. Striving for more gender diversity, the company is committed to its ambition to reach gender parity across all management positions by 2025.

Since earning her Master’s, Mamatlepa’s learning has never stopped, and she is currently studying for her MBA through the University of the Witwatersrand. In addition, she has completed a number of short management courses through the University of Stellenbosch and is a black belt certified practitioner of Six Sigma, a lean manufacturing and continuous improvement certification which includes both classroom studies and fieldwork. 

Mamatlepa’s career has spanned over 17 years and has included roles at African Explosives and Chemical, Air Liquide and Johnson Matthey South Africa. She joined Henkel South Africa in 2022 as a Manufacturing Manager, and then in January 2024 she assumed the position of Plant Manager at the company’s Alrode plant.

Reflecting on her elevation to what is ultimately a male dominated environment, Mamatlepa said that the demands on women in the industry were high.

“Being a woman in this industry is extremely demanding as you are constantly required to prove yourself and work harder than your male counterparts,” she says.

Mamatlepa has a people management vision for the plant that is all about continuing to empower staff with the skills they need to carry out their responsibilities. She acknowledges the inevitability that she will be compared to her previous male counterpart.

“My predecessor spent nine years in the position and so it’s challenging to come into an environment where there had been a certain way of doing things for so long. Also, as a woman you must earn a level of respect that men seem automatically to command. As women, we are often seen as strict, when we are just standing our ground and owning our decisions as managers and leaders.”

Mamatlepa is appreciative of Henkel South Africa’s acknowledgement of her skills and expertise, and of their belief in her sense of purpose and ability to take on this position.

“We need more organisations like Henkel South Africa to recognize and empower women. It should be part of more companies’ strategic vision to ensure that women are afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Women should be judged on merit and their capacity to do the job and not by an outdated agenda.”

Mamatlepa encourages young girls to believe in themselves as more women blaze their own trails in the industry.  “Just follow your passion,” she says “There is nothing to be afraid of – it can be intimidating to work with men in this industry, but women can coexist with men without compromising their femininity and losing their identity in the process. We do not need to act like men to succeed– we can just be ourselves. The industry is slowly transforming, diversity and gender equality are more apparent in our workplaces. Times have changed and the industry has and continues to evolve.”