Sixty years ago South Africa was no country for budding black entrepreneurs, but Richard Maponya managed to defy the odds and opened a backstreet store that grew into a massive retail empire on the back of which he became a legendary black businessman.
That grocery shop in the township of Soweto, opened in the early 1950s, led to several in the years that followed. From there he ventured into car dealerships, petrol stations, butcheries, supermarkets, bus services and funeral parlors. He later joined a consortium that acquired Coca-Cola’s bottling plant, when the soft drink giant decided to disinvest in apartheid South Africa. He also became a cell phone provider and his name was linked to many deals and ventures.
To be big, Maponya had to risk big, but his achievements were many, not least his own economic freedom, which he had won long before political freedom came in 1994.
Canny and shrewd, he continued to move with the times and pushed his pile of chips into property development and four years ago unveiled his biggest lifetime achievement: the Maponya Mall in Soweto.
“I wanted the people of the township to be able to spend their money in the township and create employment for themselves.”
This year he opened Maponya Motor City not far away from Maponya Mall. And there’s more to follow. The 90-year-old still has a few more ventures up his sleeve.
You have to admire Maponya. If it was a desire to make a go of his life that drove him all these years, he could have chosen an easier option than betting on business in an all-white, male world. Easier still would have been to stick to what he had been trained to do—high school teaching. But Maponya has no regrets and if he could roll back the clock he would do it the same all over again.
“The only thing that would be different this time is that I would be an even bigger entrepreneur,” he says without a hint of humility in his voice. “The playing field is leveled now and things are so much easier today than they were when I started out.”
He was born in 1920 in the small village of Lenyene, in Limpopo, and later moved to Polokwane, where missionaries trained him as a teacher. With his qualification under his belt, he headed to Johannesburg in 1948 in search of his first teaching post. But as fate would have it, the dapper-looking 28-year-old was snapped up by a drapery store in the city center before he had a chance to sit the other side of a school desk.
Maponya hadn’t envisaged a working life in retail.
“But they were offering me five times more than the teaching post would have paid. And I said to myself, ‘these may be the greener pastures I was looking for after all.’”
Little did he know how green those pastures were to be.
Yet those were dreadful times for black South Africans. That year—1948—also marked the dawn of apartheid that would result in a half a century of inhumanity for non-whites. Maponya ought not have been an exception. He was living in the township of Alexandria, renting some space in the home of members of his extended family and subjected to the same harsh reality that every other black person endured.
“We were like foreigners in our own country,” he remembers. “The native was treated in the worst possible way.”
But Maponya had struck lucky though he didn’t realize it at the time. At the drapery store he reported to a man by the name of Mr Bolton—“we did not call the white man by his first name then”—and the pair worked well together.
Bolton was hard-working and enterprising. Maponya was equally so. Bolton was also a good businessman and he coached his employee in the trade.
He taught him about fabrics, quality and design. He mentored him in customer care. He encouraged him to select clothing and designs that would appeal “to my people” as Maponya put it.
Before long, he began to recognize the budding businessman in himself.
The pair worked hand-in-hand for three years, during which time Bolton was scaling the corporate ladder until he was promoted to CEO of the company in 1951. But before he closed his executive door on the drapery floor, he asked to meet with Maponya.
“Son, I am being promoted because of our joint efforts and I don’t know how to thank you,” Bolton told his junior.
Maponya nodded his head and muttered a courteous response, expecting little else to follow, but Bolton continued speaking.
“You have a ceiling over your head because you are black so there is nothing I can do,” he said, stating a glaring fact. “All I can offer you is a job as a foreman.”
“But I would like to give you the chance to buy samples and soiled clothing that you can sell after work or on the weekends to make some extra money for yourself,” the new CEO told him.
“And that is what gave me my start in life,” Maponya remembers, all these years later. “Without it, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
He started selling the garments on a ‘pay while you wear’ basis. Folks had little cash to spare then so he indulged them with credit. Trust went a long way in the early 1950s.
“‘Take it and wear it’ I would tell them and I would collect the money at the end of the week. They never let me down. I never lost a penny in those days.”
And it was from those humble beginnings that the empire began to emerge.
At this hour of his life, Maponya has a lot to be proud of, yet he refuses to step down. To this day he still works a five-day week, six if his children allow him. On the eve of his 91st birthday, I tell him he is a poor advertisement for a pension plan.
“I don’t even know what the word retirement means,” he chuckles in response.
These days his time is taken with his latest project, the Richard Maponya Institute for Skills Training and Entrepreneurship.
“This is the big one,” he says. “This is my legacy project. This is what I want to leave behind, a place where young people are not only given a skill but the know-how to go out and create work for themselves.”
The legacy idea began to take shape a couple of years ago as Maponya began to take stock of the challenges facing South Africa. Idle youth stared him in the face.
“If only I could tell you that it is thousands and thousands of youth that are unemployed, it might not be so bad. But it is not. We are talking about millions and millions of our young people who have no jobs. That’s a lot of people and I don’t think we fully realize how awful it is for them or how dangerous it is for society to have so many idle youth falling into the trap of poverty. They deserve more and so does South Africa.”
For guidance, he turned to Brazil, a country that made some clever moves many years ago when it began to train its youth to become the kind of entrepreneurs that would start the small and medium-sized enterprises that now form the backbone of the South American country’s economy.
“South Africa is no different. We need young men and women who will go out and create their own jobs and not depend on the economy to create work for them. It will never happen that way. This is a society that is becoming too dependent on the state. The state can only do so much and it certainly cannot solve the challenge of unemployment.”
Maponya’s plan is a commendable one, but how difficult is it to become an entrepreneur? Is it something that everyone can do? Or is it a character-driven thing?
“If you have discipline you can become an entrepreneur,” he tells me. “That’s the core requirement: discipline. I wasn’t born an entrepreneur. No one is. You learn to become on. But you learn it through discipline.”
What about a vision, or a plan?
“You might have the best plan in the world, but if you don’t have the discipline to pull it off, it will never happen. Discipline is everything.”
Can discipline be taught?
“It’s not only about teaching it, but learning it. The will has to come from the person, not the teacher. What can be taught is how to develop discipline. The rest is over to you.”
As simple as that?
“It can be,” he says. “If not, we have to decide to live in poverty and with poverty. But if we want to change it, then we must join hands as South Africans and begin to turn this ship around. We need strong, social leaders. We need mentors. We need willing youth. If we have all of those, and I believe we have, then many things are possible.”
The training institute—on Brazilian lines—is still work in progress, but he hopes he can open its doors to the youth of Soweto at some stage next year.
“And if it works, and I know it will, then I would like to see it replicated all over South Africa. But I just want to get this one right. This is my legacy. My way of giving back. This really is my big one.”
And will he then hang up his boots?
“No,” he says, without a flicker of hesitation. “For as long as the Lord gives me my health, I think I will work until the last day. I think I will die with my boots on. That is how I think it is going to happen.”
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