“A pioneer, a trailblazer and a man of extraordinary fortitude, who paved the way for the racial transformation of South Africa’s economy.”
Those were the words of South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa extolling the entrepreneurial acumen of Richard Maponya, who died on Monday, January 6, 2020.
According to Ramaphosa, Maponya was a “rare breed of entrepreneur” who refused to be held back by debilitating operating conditions.
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Maponya died in the early hours of Monday at the age of 99 and he would be remembered as the pioneering entrepreneur who weathered and defied the obstacles of the apartheid system – when doing so was ridiculously suicidal.
Maponya died after a brief illness, his family said.
“It is with sadness that the Maponya family informs you of the passing-on of Dr. Richard Maponya in the early hours of the 6th of January 2020, after a short illness. The family requests some privacy during this time of grieving. Funeral arrangements will be announced in due course,” said family spokesperson, Mandla Maseko, in a statement.
Maponya’s journey to becoming South Africa’s ‘grandfather of black retail’ began on the streets of Thlabine, near Lenyenye, a township in the Limpopo province of northern South Africa where he was born.
A teacher by training, Maponya ventured into business at the age of 24 when he moved to Johannesburg, in 1948 in search of greener pastures. That was the early days of the dreaded apartheid system which ended 25 years ago following South Africa’s first all-race democratic elections held on April 27, 1994.
Apartheid is an Afrikaans word that means – apartness – it’s a policy that governed relations between South Africa’s white minority and nonwhite majority and sanctioned racial segregation and political and economic discrimination against nonwhites.
The implementation often called “separate development” since the 1960s was made possible through the Population Registration Act of 1950, which classified all South Africans as either Bantu (all black Africans), Coloured (those of mixed race), or white.
A fourth category – Asian (Indian and Pakistani) – was said to have been added later, according to the Britannica.com.
That was the period Maponya ventured into business selling garments to miners and rural people in the early 1950s. The business flourished and Maponya would go on to establish retail shops with his wife ditching teaching. He would later venture into a diary distribution, property development – an adventure that turned out to be a massive business conglomerate.
Maponya was the first black man to secure a 100-year lease for land in Soweto in 1979 and 15 years later, after several attempts, acquired it outright in 1994, Fin24 reported. And it was on that land that he built Maponya Mall.
Maponya also operated a General Motors dealership before the American company pulled out of South Africa in 1987. He also established the first BMW dealership in South Africa’s largest black township, Soweto.
Recounting to Forbes, how his journey to becoming the ‘grandfather of black retail’, he said: “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.”
Maponya applied for a trading license for a shop in one of South Africa’s biggest townships, Soweto, but was turned down, Forbes reported.
He would then call onto 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.
They fought for his license but they didn’t succeed in getting a clothing store. But, they got him a license to trade daily necessities. That was the beginning his entrepreneurial success.
“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,” Maponya told Forbes.
When Mandela was released from prison after 27 years Maponya hosted him ushering the end of apartheid.
In 2007, he was awarded the Order of the Baobab in Silver for his “excellent contribution to entrepreneurship despite oppressive apartheid conditions, and for serving as an inspiration to disadvantaged South Africans striving for business success”.