‘As Long As They Don’t Put A Bullet On My Forehead I Won’t Stop’

Published 6 years ago
‘As Long As They Don’t Put A Bullet On My Forehead  I Won’t Stop’

For 96 years, Richard Maponya has been battering down barriers of prejudice and proving that a black man can do anything.

His journey began in the dusty streets of Lenyenye, a township in the Limpopo province of northern South Africa, where he was born. He moved to Polokwane, where missionaries trained him as a teacher. With a qualification under his belt, he moved to Johannesburg, in 1948, in search of a teaching post and greener pastures. This was during the early days of apartheid and it wasn’t easy for a black man to do anything.

“Back in those days, you had to register your presence if you moved to a new area. I had moved to Alexandra township and I went to the pass office to register,” says Maponya.

There, he found an Afrikaner man looking for people to work at his potato farm in Delmas, 65 kilometers north east of Johannesburg. Little did he know he was going out of the frying pan into the fire.

“He asked for my documents, looked at my pass and all my documents and said ‘this boy would fit in well with the group I am looking for’. I told him I was there to just register in the new area but he took my pass, paged it and he spoke in Afrikaans with another gentlemen with him and said ‘this man is 28 years old’… He took my pass and altered my birth year from 1920 to 1926. He also took my birth certificate and never brought it back to me. I think he wanted a group of people who were about 20 to 22 years old or so.”

On that day, Maponya lost his identity forever.

“I have employed lawyers to fix that but even in the archives of our government, they don’t have any records, so I walk as a man everyone thinks was born in 1926 yet I was born in 1920. This is one thing I never talk about, you are the first journalist I’ve ever disclosed this to,” he says as he reveals the pain of his past.

Like the bags of potatoes they were going to carry, Maponya and a group of young black men were loaded in a truck and taken to the fields to work.

“During those days, black people were terribly ill-treated. We had no rights whatsoever; I was lucky my uncle worked for a liberal Englishman who rescued me from being abused while digging and loading potatoes. They gave me a small job of washing dishes and my uncle’s boss came to pick me up a week later… I stayed with him for a few days and then went back to Alexandra.”

As we meet, 69 years later, Maponya has swapped his matchbox room in Alexandra for five mansions in Africa’s richest square mile, Sandton. When we compliment his beautiful Victorian-style home, he says, “Have you ever been to my other homes?”

It is hard work, smart decisions and some laughs, like this, that have helped him make millions. Even though he is suffering from flu, he talks to us.

Maponya’s journey into entrepreneurship began 70 years ago when South Africa was no country for budding black entrepreneurs. The tough times steeled him for his long journey to become a legendary businessman.

Rattling along in the back of the potato truck, he never thought of a life in retail but then came an interview for a job in a department store.

“They were offering me more money than a teaching post would and the gentleman who interviewed me liked me from the word go,” he says.

Even more money was coming his way. Within months, he was promoted to a fashion buyer for the store. His boss, Mr Bolton, a kind and intelligent businessman, he says, taught him about fabrics, how to select clothes, and customer service. The two worked hand-in-glove for three years; turnover increased and Bolton was promoted to CEO of the group in 1951. Maponya thought he had struck gold.

“When he got promoted, he called me to his office and thanked me for helping him reach that point. He said ‘unfortunately I can’t promote you because you have a ceiling over your head, you cannot oversee white people. All I can do is maybe make you baas boy but that doesn’t really help you with anything,’” says Maponya.

The dapper looking 31-year-old Maponya nodded his head and muttered a courteous response, expecting little else to follow.

“I was very surprised because Mr Bolton continued to speak. He said ‘I am going to let you buy clothing samples here so that you can sell them after hours and on weekends so you can make a bit of money’.”

And he did. Before long, Maponya began to recognize the budding businessman in himself. His after hours hustle paid off.

“I realized people didn’t have money to buy upfront and I started a wear and pay system and it worked so well. People would take clothes and pay for them at month end and I was making a lot of money,” he says.

After a year of good business, Bolton was diagnosed with a brain tumour and was forced to retire. With him, he took Maponya’s business.

“The person who took over from him didn’t want to hear anything about it. He redirected the stock they gave me and gave it to Indian hawkers.”

It was a blessing in disguise. Maponya was angry. To be big, Maponya thought he had to risk big. He resigned from his job to pursue the uncertain world of entrepreneurship. He started buying clothing from wholesalers. The business flourished.

Maponya applied for a trading license for a shop in one of South Africa’s biggest townships, Soweto, but was turned down. He went to Mandela and Tambo, a law firm run by South Africa’s struggle heroes Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. At the time, it was the only black-owned law firm in the country.

“Nelson was still a very powerful speaker. He was so powerful that, I would say, he could say to a mountain, move and it would move. They fought for my license but we didn’t succeed in getting a clothing store. But, they got me a license to trade daily necessities,” says Maponya.

At the time, there was no milk delivery in Soweto. There was also no electricity for fridges, so people bought milk for the day. Maponya saw a gap.

“I was shocked. People ate breakfast with milk everyday but had no place to buy close to them. I opened a little dairy there. I started with 10 boys cycling the neighborhood on bicycles everyday selling milk, cash, door to door.”

It was from these humble beginnings that his empire grew. The business moved extremely fast from 10 to 100 men cycling and selling for him; then, big business woke up.

“Clover saw the potential of selling milk in the townships and they started coming with big trucks to sell. They took the bulk of my clients and I realized I couldn’t compete with them,” says Maponya.

With the wisdom of knowing when to let go, Maponya gave up the milk-selling business for Maponya’s Supply Stores, a backstreet store that grew into a massive retail empire that was to make him a household name.

“I started with a butchery, then a fruit and vegetable store, and then a grocery store with two tables inside where we sold cooked food,” he says.

Maponya’s Supply Stores expanded across Soweto.  Growth meant problems.

“I struggled with getting the right people to manage the stores. The only stores where people were making profit are the ones where my wife and I were operating. The other stores would break even or run at a loss.”

It became frustrating, again, he knew he had to let go.

He closed the stores he and his wife couldn’t manage. This encouraged him to look for other opportunities. There was a long list because there were no services in the township. So, he built Mountain Motors, the second black-owned garage in Soweto.

“It surprised everybody. Some say it was the biggest in the southern hemisphere. We were selling petrol in an unbelievable manner. We were getting support from every black person in Soweto. We were selling over a million liters per month,” he says with a smile.

Mountain Motors became the first black-owned garage to have a motor vehicle dealership. Like all his other businesses, it took off.

“Later on, I was invited by BMW to take over a dealership in Soweto. That made history. I would get orders from people from America. It was history that a black man would sell cars those days… I would get an allocation of about 30 cars per month and I would sell all of them in a week… I would borrow cars from other dealers and sell three times my allocation per month,” he says.

It meant, when new stock arrived, he would return the cars he borrowed and would spend two months without stock. He tried and failed to get his allocation of cars increased. Paying staff, when there were no cars to sell, was hard.

“As an entrepreneur, you should always know when you have made money and the business won’t be worth your energy anymore. It doesn’t mean it has failed, it means you have dug everything you can from it and it is time for something new that may make you more money,” says Maponya.

Again, following his own advice, he closed down the motor business and went on the hunt for a new venture. It ushered in some of his worst days in business.

“I applied for a casino license. I qualified for everything they required [besides the skin color] because it was still during apartheid. When we went for an interview, they asked me if I have R10 million, a lot of money at the time, and I told them I don’t have it in my pocket but I can make means… they said its either you give it now or lose the license… the licence was awarded to white brothers. This is a frustrating and terrible thing I chased and never succeeded.”

As painful as it was, Maponya used his canny and shrewd characteristics to go after his lifelong dream – a world-class shopping mall in the heart of Soweto. It took him 27 years of sweat, court applications and fundraising.

“You won’t believe it if I tell you I started building it on the 28th year… I even went to Parliament to make a presentation but I kept being turned down… They said the people of Soweto would never support a mall in Soweto because they want to shop in the city where there are brighter lights and I told them it’s not true… I have been fighting and fighting but I said as long as they don’t put a bullet on my forehead I won’t stop,” he says closing his eyes to emphasize his point.

In 1979, Maponya acquired land for the mall, in Soweto, on  a 100-year lease and, in 1994, the year South Africa got its independence, after several attempts, he acquired it outright. But the battle was only just beginning.

Various attempts to finance construction failed, until Maponya’s holding company entered into a joint venture with Zenprop Property Holdings. The sweat and pain paid off and on September 27, 2007, Nelson Mandela, the man who had been in prison for as long as it took Maponya to build the mall, cut the red ribbon to open Maponya Mall.

“It was the highlight of my entire life. It was a tough exercise to get money. I could have met about half of that but I needed help. To see this come to life made all the pain I have ever gone through in business worth it,” he says.

Today, the R650-million ($48.7-million) mall has more than 200 stores and a cinema; it is also one of the largest shopping centers in South Africa and one of the growing Johannesburg attractions.

“I am very proud of the mall. It can stand anywhere in the world and compete. I am proud I have built something for the people of Soweto because I have always wanted it to be an economic hub.”

A world-class mall was not the end, merely a milestone. The Maponya Group is also in the poultry industry. They count Pick n Pay and 24 hospitals, in Gauteng, the province of Johannesburg, among their customers for eggs. They also grow vegetables.

Maponya still has filling stations. He also intends to build another mall in Soweto. Maponya Group’s ventures also include property development, horse racing, retail, automotive sales and liquor.

“I wasn’t born to be an entrepreneur, I learned to be one. I don’t think anyone is born to be an entrepreneur, you learn. I looked at the young boys of my age, when I was young, managing their father’s businesses and I had to go and say ‘baas’ to small boys like that? No, I was not going to allow it. I told myself I am going to create a business for myself and also create jobs like they do,” says Maponya.

While this unfair advantage inspired him, he was also inspired by many black small businessmen; among them was the late Richard Baloyi.

“When I was staying in Alexandra, Baloyi was the only richest black man I had ever known. He owned buses. That man inspired me, he was my role model. When I looked at him, I said ‘I want to be rich like that man, one day I will be richer than that man and indeed I did it. If he was still alive, he would shake my hand and say ‘boy you have done it’.”

Maponya’s success has earned him many friends. Apart from being married to Mandela’s cousin, Marina, he calls Mandela, his lawyer back in the early 1950s, his greatest friend.

“Mandela asked me to pick him up at the airport when he was released from prison because he knew I owned a car dealership. I picked him up at the airport and that was the most frightening time of my life. We were chased by people on foot, helicopters, motorbikes and cars. Everyone just wanted to touch Mandela. They could kill him just trying to touch him,” he says.

According to Maponya, Mandela was scheduled to sleep at one of Maponya’s houses in Sandton but there wasn’t enough security. They booked a place to sleep for the night. He says the most frightening part was when he drove Mandela to FNB Stadium, in Soweto, the next day. People were streaming from all areas for a chance to meet him. The stadium was packed.

“We managed to go in but coming out was a nightmare. There were more people outside than inside. We realized they will squash us and never allow the car to move.”

Mandela was picked up by a helicopter bound for Orlando Stadium, where there was another crowd waiting.

“When we were on our way to Orlando Stadium, we could see all the people from FNB Stadium running to Orlando Stadium.”

“I drove him after that to a few meetings but I realized I can’t cope with his schedule… I gave him a BMW 7 Series as a gift and a driver who drove Mandela from that time until he died,” he says.

To top that, Maponya has dined with the Queen and calls Bill Clinton and the Oppenheimers friends.

At this time of his life, Maponya has a lot to be proud of but still has more up his sleeve.

“I am 96 years old now and I am not going to retire. The day I retire would be the day you say to me ‘lala kahle’ (rest in peace), then that would be my retirement. I would know I have done my piece. People who retire are lazy people. You retire and do what? Bask in the sun? I am not that type of a man,” he says.

Mentoring young people is a big part of Maponya’s life. Monalisa Sam says she was lucky to be mentored by Maponya. The two crossed paths when Sam was a general manager for Maponya Mall Property Trust in 2007. A friendship was forged in the two years she worked there, before she left to co-found Tungwa Retail Holdings in 2011, a company run by black women.

“Mr Maponya has been such a big part of my journey. I think he is probably one of the most underrated elders in business in the sense that young people don’t know the lessons they can learn from him. There is so much pressure on achievement and success that we forget to build a legacy which is what Maponya did. His life story is so important for young people in business,” says Sam.

You have to admire Maponya for doing what many can’t. He could have chosen the easier path instead of pushing his way into business in a white man’s world. Easier still would have been to stick with what he was trained to do – and teach.

Maponya has been the first in many things, but this is not the last we will hear of him.