“You must keep going, don’t let go,” replies the teacher.
A moment across a table as an African trailblazer in business uses his lessons in life to help shape a young entrepreneur.
The teacher is 86-year-old Richard Maponya; his pupil is 32-year-old Monalisa Sam. They grew up worlds apart with the same aim.
Maponya, a trained teacher who never taught, joined a company in the 1950s to sell clothing to miners. This job spurred him on to become an entrepreneur.
For more than 50 years, Maponya did everything. He sold clothes door-to-door, meat to butchers, BMWs to the rich and property to the wise. Most came in oppressive apartheid days when Maponya was shunned at every turn.
Maponya Mall is his holy grail. It took Maponya $62.8 million, 28 years and a string of lawsuits to carve out the first shopping mall in the bustling Soweto.
“It was like a war, I don’t know how many times I had been turned down by the apartheid government,” Maponya says.
Former president Nelson Mandela opened the mall in late 2007. In 1957, Mandela, then a young lawyer, assisted Maponya when the businessman was trying to obtain a license to open a retail clothing store.
By contrast, Sam is the daughter of a former headmaster, who had it easier. Her father, Gideon Sam, is now the South African Sports Confederations and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) president. Sam was part of the first generation of black children to enrol in formerly whites only schools. She has a Bachelor of Commerce in accounting degree from the University of Cape Town and was employed by Old Mutual Properties.
Their paths crossed 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.
“When we interviewed Monalisa for the job, there were many others but she was the star. We grabbed her with both hands. And we were not disappointed by our decision. She’s very talented and confident. I know she will go very far,” says Maponya.
To this day, Maponya, albeit frail, hasn’t lost his hunger for business, nor his dress sense that made him a snappy salesman a lifetime ago.
The mentor and protégé meet at Maponya’s house in Hyde Park to catch up and assess how the young entrepreneur is faring.
“The business is coming on well, Papa, but as any entrepreneurial project it takes time with a lot of challenges. But we are grounded on what we want to do. We will keep going,” Sam tells Maponya.
Maponya surprises his protégé with talk of a new business.
“I have been very busy with a little challenge. I have ventured into the chicken industry. It has been monopolized by Afrikaaners and I just felt I had to have a crack at it and see if I can make a difference and see if I can encourage some of the black folks to join in. It is not an easy industry,” he says.
“If you want to succeed in this industry you must own everything. Don’t depend on other people,” Maponya advises his student.
The talk veers towards the government’s black economic empowerment (BEE) policy aimed at wealth redistribution. They both feel it has failed.
Maponya criticizes the BEE policy and tender system which the government uses to give contracts to the public.
“They came up with something they themselves cannot control. The white men saw opportunity in the BEE. It has created so many white millionaires as it made it possible for them to just pick a black person and say this is my BEE partner,” says Maponya.
“As the black partner you never get access to finances, you don’t know what’s going on with money, you are not empowered, you are just a token,” Sam interjects.
They agree BEE has failed to spread wealth. It is benefiting the few with political connections.
“The other thing it does Papa, it encourages a sense of entitlement among black people. There’s this idea you don’t have to work, you don’t have to understand anything. If you are just there as a black person, you are going to get something,” adds Sam.
Sam says the deals are out of most people’s reach.
“It has done a lot of harm, it has killed the youth initiatives,” says Maponya.
“Tendering is the worst thing that has ever been created. It has become a monster that has corrupted people from right at the top of government to the bottom of the ladder,” says Maponya.
“The idea is that you will never get a tender if you have not done something unscrupulous. Some say by the time it comes out in the papers it is too late. Newspaper advertisement is just a formality to say we are transparent,” says Sam.
Maponya says the government must scrap the tendering policy.
“It hurts me seeing the country becoming the most corrupt nation in the continent,” says Maponya.
The National Empowerment Fund (NEF), the government funding agent, argues that it is doing its job with distinction and merit.
“The relevance of the National Empowerment Fund is far beyond question. There’s no other (funding) entity that does what we do, no bank that does it. NEF is run with absolute integrity,” says Moemise Motsepe, the marketing and communications manager of NEF.
On average the NEF receives more than 300 applications a month. Those that are not successful are considered for a business mentorship program that runs over six months, says Motsepe.
“To date the National Empowerment Fund has funded over 500 black businesses which have created over 44,000 jobs. Over 20% of the beneficiaries are women,” he adds.
Despite these problems, Sam is far from discouraged.
“If you listened to Papa’s story when he started, the times were different but the business principles are the same of saying take the opportunity, understand where the gap is and how you service that gap,” she says.
“For many years, Papa nurtured his dream of building and owning a world-class shopping center in Soweto. In my time at Maponya, I learnt so much from him. But the most important thing he has taught me is humility and patience.”
It is evident in the conversation that the duo’s problems are different but the suffering is the same.
Like his clan totem elephant, which is the emblem on his business and tie, Maponya remains a heavyweight in business who is far from ready to give up his title.