“I feel like crying ... I don’t know what one can do to get black people to realise the importance of unity. We don’t work as a unit; we don’t see one another as brothers and sisters. With the numbers we have we can achieve whatever we need to achieve. But alas, it seems apartheid has done a lot of harm to us; we still operate in silos without supporting one another. We cannot achieve more if we are divided.”

These were the words of the legendary Richard Maponya in an interview with the National African Federated Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Nafcoc) magazine Khwebo in October 2018. Maponya, who passed away on Monday, a few weeks after his 99th birthday, made this assertion on the eve of an elective conference of Nafcoc, the organisation he was instrumental in founding half century earlier. His assertion was interpreted as a subtle message to Nafcoc as the organisation headed for elections. It had been rocked by internal strife for almost two decades. In the end Nafcoc did have a relatively smooth elective conference in November 2018, which saw the election of Sabelo Macingwane as president after Lawrence Mavundla had stepped down.

Why is it that we black people, at the slightest disagreement, rush to form new organisations? I

Ten years earlier Maponya raised a similar concern when delivering a eulogy for his contemporary and close friend Nthato Motlana, in Soweto. He lamented the fragmentation of black organisations in both the business and political worlds. He made the speech at the renowned Regina Mundi church, at a time when the country was gripped by the Congress of the People’s emergence in the political landscape. “Why is it that we black people, at the slightest disagreement, rush to form new organisations? In the 1950s I tried to speak to Madzunya [a reference to the flamboyant Josias Madzunya, one of founders of the Pan Africanist Congress] not to mobilise for the formation of another organisation, but rather that we sit down and address our differences. I failed. Now it is happening again. When will we learn?”

This “godfather” of contemporary black business is renowned for many pioneering and daring achievements in the world of business, from agro-processing, horse racing and bottling to retail. But that does not complete Maponya’s life, which spanned almost a century. His role as an economic activist is often overlooked. For instance, not many know that he was one of the 80 black businesspeople who gathered in Bloemfontein on April 28 1964 to form Nafcoc. Maponya attended the gathering as president of the powerful Johannesburg African Chamber of Commerce. It therefore came as no surprise when he pipped another black business strongman, PG Gumede, to emerge as president of the new organisation.

Soon after launch Nafcoc, then called the National African Chamber of Commerce and Industry, resolved to establish a bank, on the realisation that black business would continue to be on the margins of the economy if it did not have its own bank. That was the beginnings of African Bank. The project was initially led by Maponya, national treasurer the evergreen SJJ Lesolang, and the then Transvaal president, David Pooe. Gripped by the emerging black consciousness movement after the banning of the Pan Africanist Congress and ANC a few years earlier, there was eagerness to establish the bank using “own resources”.

The late South African entrepreneur and property developer Richard Maponya. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU
The late South African entrepreneur and property developer Richard Maponya. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU

The fund-raising process took Maponya and co to cities and towns, townships and villages locally and abroad, their spirit undampened even as it took 10 years to raise R1m seed capital, way after Maponya had stepped down as president of Nafcoc. Legend has it that when the fundraising programme started in earnest it was the irrepressible HM Pitje who made the first contribution to the bank project fund with the princely sum of £2. In today’s terms the fund-raising process that led to the establishment of African Bank could be dubbed the first recorded “crowd funding” by Africans south of the Limpopo.

It was at that point that the concept of the “black rand”, the circulation of money among black people, came to the fore. This concept was later to be amplified by the Foundation for African Business and Consumer Services (Fabcos), at its launch in August 1988. Black business had established that money circulated between 10-15 times in the Indian and Jewish communities while circulating only once in the black community.

Maponya is said to have believed strongly that ownership of a bank would be the catalyst for launching black people into the economic mainstream

Maponya belonged to a generation of black businesspeople who believed strongly in self-reliance and strength in numbers. So pronounced was that spirit that upon raising enough funds to launch African Bank in 1975, with its black, green and gold emblem, they “imported” Moses Maubane, a South African who was then based in the US, to be the bank’s first CEO. Maubane was thought to be an African American given his distinct American accent.

By the time African Bank was launched, the Nafcoc presidency had passed on to Maponya’s confidante, Sam Motsuenyane, fondly referred to as the “Oliver Tambo of black business”. Motsuenyane had succeeded Michael Chonco, who had taken the reigns after Maponya.

In addition to his tenacity and determination — for instance, never giving up on building a mall in Soweto despite it taking him the better part of three decades — Maponya possessed a cheeky and lighter side. He narrated a story of the choice of name for his first horse after breaking into the highly competitive horse racing industry. He named it “Another Colour” and made his white jockeys wear black, green and gold.

Later in his illustrious business career Maponya saw the power of partnerships. He led the founding of a Coca-Cola bottling company with the late Gibson Thula and soccer supremo Irvin Khoza. The company was called Kilimanjaro and was listed on the JSE. In the mid 1990s, when the market was dumping shares of the newly listed BEE conglomerates, Kilimanjaro’s share price held strong, never reaching lower than R3 a share, which was seen as a big achievement at the time.

Those who know the family well would argue that Maponya would not have gone as far in his business career without his late wife, Marina, who was a businesswoman in her own right. A story is told that when the Order of the Baobab was awarded to Marina posthumously in 2016, Maponya, seeing the array of luminaries attending the function, quipped: “I don’t know who among you has money, but can anyone help us buy back African Bank?”

He is said to have believed strongly that ownership of a bank would be the catalyst for launching black people into the economic mainstream, as it would address the biggest obstacle faced by potential black entrepreneurs wanting to start businesses. It is that spirit that catapulted Maponya to iconic status in SA, where sharp debates about the lack of inclusiveness of the economy continue to this day.

• Malunga is a former MD of Business Day and Financial Mail. He writes in his personal capacity.