Richard Maponya was accorded the rare honour of a state funeral, which took place at the University of Johannesburg Soweto campus. This honour recognises Maponya’s heroic struggle to build his business in the face of the apartheid regime putting every conceivable obstacle in his way.

It was convenient for today’s governing party to lionise one of its own, to deflect attention from its long history of racist, antibusiness rhetoric, summed up in the pejorative epithet “white monopoly capital”. Seventeenth-century French author and moralist Francois de la Rochefoucauld had a nice way of putting it: “hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue”.

The late Richard Maponya. Picture: VATHISWA RUSELO
The late Richard Maponya. Picture: VATHISWA RUSELO

The unease in the business community cannot have escaped President Cyril Ramaphosa’s attention when he arrived from the funeral at the Business Unity SA (Busa) Economic Indaba in Sandton. Perhaps in anticipation of a frosty reception, the president used his eulogy to commit to “trying” to bring Maponya’s vision of establishing an entrepreneurship institute in Soweto to fruition.

It was painful to witness the hypocrisy of a former union leader whose road to riches was paved by politics, which Maponya rejected. Big business should acknowledge its complicity in this rejection of economic principles to curry favour and influence with the politically connected.

The ANC has become as antithetical to expressions such as ‘opportunity for all’ and ‘inclusive growth’ as the apartheid regime was to Maponya’s ambitions

The ANC cannot credibly lionise a builder. Its policies have suffocated personal initiative in favour of dependency on state largesse. Not only is the organisation rife with the corruption of exploiting the state for personal gain and creating a patronage network, the ANC also wants to bask in the glory of departed heroes while condemning a majority to chronic poverty.

The ANC has disappointed all South Africans by undermining the nation’s future. It seeks political dividends by praising the 99-year life of an indefatigable entrepreneur while the median South African is 28 years old, poor and ill-educated, with meagre prospects.

The ANC has become as antithetical to expressions such as “opportunity for all” and “inclusive growth” as the apartheid regime was to Maponya’s ambitions. Over the past decade the greed of the patronage feeders has rivalled the immorality of apartheid.

When Maponya built his business in the 1940s and ’50s trading and retail were the predominant business sectors in the townships. Building anything substantial was near impossible. But seeing an opportunity, he left his job in a clothing shop in downtown Johannesburg and started out selling suits from the boot of his car in Soweto, progressing to selling milk to households and then opening a general store, a supermarket, bottle stores and car dealerships. He built an empire this way, against all the odds given the contempt the apartheid regime had for independent-minded blacks.

So it is unsurprising that his pinnacle achievement was Maponya Mall, which Nelson Mandela opened in 2007. It’s a gleaming monument to trade and consumerism, bringing Sandton City to Soweto. But apart from providing some employment for locals, most of the value is added far from the townships.

Three kilometres from Maponya Mall lies the Orlando West Industrial Park, not far from where the National African Federated Chambers of Commerce was founded in 1955 with Maponya as its first chair. It was built in the 1980s by the PW Botha government in partnership with Anton Rupert’s Rembrandt Group, but is now dilapidated and neglected. It is owned by the Small Enterprise Finance Agency, which is trying to sell it.

To him it was an individual’s vision, hard work, perseverance and self-reliance that mattered

In October 2014 I attended the launch of the township economic revitalisation programme at Orlando Stadium. The leading government representatives were Gauteng premier David Makhura, deputy president Ramaphosa and small business development minister Lindiwe Zulu. Makhura and Ramaphosa waxed lyrical about government’s ambitious plans to invest in the township economy. The 2019 ANC manifesto said the same. These commitments were repeated at Maponya’s funeral.

So why isn’t more being invested in Soweto’s productive economy? An ANC councillor’s tribute at the memorial service held at Maponya Mall is telling. She quoted from the Freedom Charter’s call for wealth to be shared and the national democratic revolution in which blacks would be liberated to participate in the economy, an economy in which the state plays the dominant part.

Both of these injunctions could not be further from the life Maponya lived and the world he envisaged. To him it was an individual’s vision, hard work, perseverance and self-reliance that mattered. He shared his wealth generously, but first he had to create it.

The politicians responsible for devising policies to bring prosperity to all are blinded by tired ideologies and allegiances that Maponya long ago abandoned, if he ever espoused them. Chief among these was BEE, which he said stifled initiative and encouraged entitlement.

Government handouts

Maponya was obsessed with entrepreneurship as a means to reduce poverty. He hardly ever mentioned inequality. He was wise enough to realise that in reducing poverty some people get rich so inequality rises — at first.

To Maponya, the family was the basic unit of society and the source of wealth creation. What is being done to foster family prosperity in SA? Government advertisements boast that its 17-million social grants alleviate poverty. The truth is the ANC should hang its head in shame that so many families depend on government handouts.

Ramaphosa gives his state of the nation address in a few weeks. The nation is divided, angry, frustrated and impatient. The president could do worse than deeply imbibe the values and life story of Maponya and repeat it in his speech, loudly and clearly.

Meanwhile, big businesses should take a leaf from Maponya’s book, strive to overcome the myriad obstacles before them and seek out opportunities to team up with the townships’ vibrant entrepreneurial talent.

The government and business must realise the township economy will thrive only if the whole economy thrives. They should grasp Maponya’s obsession with stimulating entrepreneurship and focus laser-like on co-operation between big and small business to achieve this goal, with a special emphasis on ferreting out export opportunities in the rich, developed world.

And we, as individuals, should learn the lessons from Maponya’s life story and ask ourselves: do we have a purpose, and the perseverance to see it through?

• Chance is a former DA MP and small business development MEC who now does business in Soweto.