How To Make his Millions of Dollars in Africa: Richard Maponya
Sitting in his majestic home in northern Johannesburg, Richard Maponya tells a story. After building up a retail empire in the 1960s and 1970s, South Africa's first black tycoon fought for six years to become a racehorse owner when the Jockey Club of Southern Africa (now known as the National Horseracing Authority) was a white-only bastion. But once he was admitted (after a lengthy legal battle), he couldn't resist the temptation to needle his adversaries. "I called my first horse Another Color," the 80-year-old Maponya recalls. "On his third time out, Another Color came scorching home. At 400 m out, he hit the front, and the commentator was screaming: 'Another Color is coming up! Another Color is taking the lead! Another Color can't be caught! Another Color is winning!' To hear those words, to see what was happening — the black people in the crowd almost tore up the track. It was a riot. It was one of the most exciting days in my life."
As a rich black entrepreneur at a time when apartheid was meant to make such a thing impossible, Richard Maponya made his name, and his fortune, subverting the established narrative. Later this month, he will buck convention once again when, opposite the wooden shack used by Dark and Lovely Barbers on Old Potchefstroom Road and an abandoned shipping container that is the workshop for P. Maone Auto Electrical Repairs, he opens a $70 million, 700,000-sq.-ft. (65,000 sq m) steel-and-glass shopping mall in Soweto.
Maponya Mall, South Africa : Maponya Mall is the hard-earned reward for a lifetime of not playing dead for a government that Maponya must have driven mad (not a long trip) with his obstinacy. 'This is my legacy to Soweto, and I've fought so hard for it, I decided it should bear my name!' Nobody's disagreeing.
As with much of Maponya's life, the decision is as much political as financial. Soweto was created by the apartheid regime as a vast dormitory just over 19 miles (30 km) from Johannesburg city center (Soweto is short for South Western Township), where blacks would return each night to eat and sleep after another day of carefully controlled, low-paid work in the city. In the 1970s, this vast shanty town became a locus of revolution. After the end of apartheid, its tin shacks and dusty back alleys retained a reputation for poverty, unrest and crime. Maponya is undeterred. Poverty and violence are part of Soweto, he admits. But today so are smart bungalows (including one still owned by Maponya himself), private schools and hip restaurants. "I believe Soweto is the strongest suburb in the country," he says. "With an estimated 5 million people, it's one of the biggest cities in South Africa. And yet if people want to buy good clothes or furniture or electrical appliances, they have to get a taxi or train into Johannesburg." Those who fail to spot Soweto's nascent transformation from ghetto to the cradle of a new black middle class, says Maponya, are guilty of the same black-or-white short-sightedness that once held that "a black man was not capable of running a business."
The rise and rise of Richard Maponya is a lesson in how there is more than one way to fight a revolution. While the African National Congress (ANC) of Nelson Mandela and others confronted apartheid head on, Maponya undermined it from the inside. A 22-year-old teacher when apartheid first took hold in 1948, Maponya was offered a job as a stock taker in a clothes maker. He quickly proved a talented operator, winning a promotion for himself and the white manager, a Mr. Bolton, who took him on. A grateful Bolton began to sell offcuts and soiled cloth to Maponya, who set up his own tailor and sold clothing on credit. The authorities closed that business — despite the best efforts of South Africa's first black law firm, established by Mandela and Oliver Tambo — but not before Maponya had built enough capital to set up a dairy in Soweto.
Richard Maponya House
Since there was no electricity or refrigerators to keep perishables fresh, Maponya opened a distribution system with 100 bicycle delivery boys, who hauled milk to the families of Soweto exactly when they needed it. The dairy grew to a general provisions shop and, despite police raids and a constant battle to win licenses — for example, he needed a special license to sell soap on Sundays — a small conglomerate bloomed. By the mid-1970s, Maponya's businesses included a chain of general stores, a butcher shop, a restaurant, a Coca-Cola plant, filling stations and a GM and BMW car dealership. "Richard Maponya is the real deal," says Michael Spicer, ceo of South Africa's Business Leadership forum, which advises government and big business on policy. "He cut his teeth at a time when it was exceptionally difficult for black Africans, and he did not do it in any facilitated way. Richard was black and rich and proud — and he did it himself. That made him one of the first black icons, a role model when there were practically none." The Little Black Book, an annual rundown of South African business leaders, calls him "the father of black retail."
Through it all, Maponya was always careful to stay on the right side of the law, even if it meant fudging the truth. Arrested on suspicion of funding ANC student fighters, a charge of which he now admits he was guilty, he escaped a sentence by claiming he made payments under duress. But Maponya developed a taste for provocation and pushing the system to its limits. He bought a home in an affluent Johannesburg suburb when he was meant to be confined to the townships. At the Jockey Club, he dressed his (white) jockeys in black, gold and green — the colors of the ANC.
Maponya's relationship with the ANC was not always smooth, however. One of Maponya's few fellow black entrepreneurs was Ntatho Motlana, a doctor who began South Africa's first private black hospitals before branching into telecommunications and media. Motlana says that all through the apartheid years, the ANC was split on whether being involved in business supported apartheid and was a betrayal. "Some thought being involved in business meant not being involved in the struggle," adds Motlana, 82. "We were saying that if we were independent, if we made money for ourselves, that was part of the movement. And today you can see the effect of people like Richard was powerful. It set off a whole chain of events that said to people: 'You are going to pull yourself out of poverty.'"
Maponya himself says that, while others fought the system, he simply worked it — to make it work for him, and Soweto. "Nelson and the others, they sacrificed themselves, their jobs and their lives for our freedom. My contribution was small. I wasn't locked up. But I was undermining the regime. I was exposing them. I was making the statement that, given a chance, a black man could become as successful as a white man."
Philosophy of life: I am driven by the pleasure I derive out of creating employment for people. It gives me great pleasure to know that I have contributed to the wellbeing of other people
That mission — upsetting the status quo — continues. "The new mall is about saying that a mall in Soweto can be as 21st century as anywhere in the world." As does his enthusiasm for getting up people's noses. After his win with Another Color, Maponya went on to become a breeder, at one time owning the biggest stable in South Africa. And the name of his stud? Maponya laughs. "Black Charger."
(C) Time Magazine
Richard Maponya: 91 and living the dream
Born in 1926, Richard John Pelwana Maponya has been an icon of hope in spearheading Soweto’s economic upliftment. This is his story.
Richard kick-started his business career as a teacher, quickly followed by being hired as a stock-taker at a clothes-manufacturing company. After being promoted for his outstanding level of work and commitment, the young man was given the opportunity to sell partially damaged goods, which he grabbed with both hands and quickly made extra money in his neighbourhood, Soweto. It wasn’t long before Richard had made enough money to realise a dream.
He tried to open a clothing manufacturing plant. The government at the time blocked this, but Richard didn’t let that get him down; instead, he formed the Dube Hygienic Dairy company. At the company, he hired a number of youths from the neighbourhood who were employed to deliver fresh milk daily to customers who couldn’t store it or couldn’t get transport to shops. Through its popularity, Richard was able to build a strong and loyal following that earned him a healthy profit. It wasn’t long before he was opening businesses left, right and centre, including general stores, car dealerships and petrol stations.
Richard also played a large role on the political scene, including being a founding member and the inaugural president of the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce, as well as the founder member of the African Chamber of Commerce. Quietly over the years he continued to grow his business empire, adding numerous more businesses to his portfolio. Then, in 2007, he made his biggest business claim to fame to date: the R650 million Maponya Mall in Soweto was officially opened by South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. It was a difficult build, and Richard only succeeded in raising the shopping complex through entering a joint venture with Zenprop Property Holdings.
And if you think that the 91-year-old business magnate is ready to sit back and rest on his laurels, think again. He recently revealed that he’s going to be listing his business interests on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in the near future and that he will also be developing a new shopping centre.
There is a beautiful spot in Polokwane and I will possibly be putting another mall there. You know things are delayed by the red streams that have to be cut, despite the fact that the playing field is level. But there are still laws that are really restrictive, laws that should be done away with if we want to see ourselves progressing in creating more jobs and putting up businesses that will employ more people,” Maponya said.
By Amaka Okechukwu Posted On 30 Nov, 2012
“I cannot retire. Retire and do what? I believe that for as long as I am alive and healthy, I must do whatever I can to benefit my community. I will work until the day they sing hamba kahle. I will die with my boots on.”
On December 24th 1926, in South Africa, Richard John Pelwana Maponya was born with a wooden spoon in his mouth. 86 years later – Maponya has interests in dairy farming, retail, commercial real estate, funeral parlours, and car dealerships. He is one of South Africa’s millionaires, and has been in business for over 60 years.
Mr. Maponya began his empire building in his early twenties, at the height of apartheid in South Africa. At the age of 24, he went to work as a stock taker for a cloth maker. Mr. Maponya proved to be a skilled buyer. Just by touching a piece of fabric, he could tell if it was from Britain, Germany or Italy. His white manager was so impressed with his work that in gratitude, he sold soiled clothing and offcuts to Mr. Maponya. Mr. Maponya then sold these and tried to use the capital he acquired to set up Soweto’s first retail clothing store. However, the apartheid government refused to grant him a license to operate the store. According to the officials, “You didn’t come to white areas to be a businessman – you came to sell your labor to industry”. To fight for his cause, he sought legal advice from Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, but lost the case.
Whilst he did not get a licence to sell clothes, he was successful however, in obtaining a licence to sell food stuffs. Undeterred by the setback, Mr. Maponya went on instead to found a successful business distributing milk ( called Dube Hygenic Dairy) to customers in Soweto who had no access to electricity to store their milk for long periods of time.
After that he has been unstoppable. He then went on to set up a butchery, grocery stores and a restaurant. Maponya opened one of the first car dealerships in Soweto and later opened the first black-owned BMW dealership. He also started the largest supermarket in Soweto.
Noticing that black people could only be punters but did not have a stake in owning racehorses, trailblazer Maponya decided to go into horse racing. At the time, everyone told him that this new venture would amount to nothing. Determined as ever, he still steered forward. The highlight came when his horse, called “Another Color” in defiance to apartheid, went on to win its third race. Today Maponya is one of South Africa’s biggest race-horse owners.
Age has not stopped Mr. Maponya. In 2007, he opened a world class mall in Soweto. In his words: “If you look around, you will see that any white suburb has a mall; Soweto, with five-million people does not….If Sowetans want to buy clothing, furniture or electrical appliances, they have to go to town [the white suburbs]…We are going to build a 21st century mall. We will not compromise on quality. It will look like any other modern mall anywhere else."
Mr. Maponya’s story is truly inspirational. This is a man who fought apartheid with business, regardless of many setbacks from government. In his own words – if not for apartheid, he would have been a lot more successful. So what is the key to Mr. Maponyo’s success? “The key to success in business is self-reliance," he says. "In the early days, I had no bank to fund me. When I wanted to expand I had to find ways to grow my existing capital. Everything I've done in business has created value and employment, which is why my people love me and I love them."
Amaka is the founder and Executive Director of afrimind. She can we reached on twitter @afrimindteam or via email on firstname.lastname@example.org
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