Dr Richard Maponya celebrate his 95th Birthday at the Soweto Home of the Old in Johannesburg in this July, 31 2015 file photo. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/KHOTSO MAHLANGU
Dr Richard Maponya celebrate his 95th Birthday at the Soweto Home of the Old in Johannesburg in this July, 31 2015 file photo. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/KHOTSO MAHLANGU

The death of Richard Maponya, who has been memorialised in the past few days as a tenacious trailblazer in the face of apartheid restrictions on black businesses, came a few weeks after he outlined his long-held dream of opening an academy to train young people to be entrepreneurs.

His comments, made in a brief Facebook post on his behalf, underscored his worry about the country’s unemployment rate, now at highs of almost 30%, and his desire to see young people “get trained to use their own hands and be able to get employed or get into business in their own right”.

Maponya’s comments are arguably a stark reminder of the economic battles SA still faces as it heads into an uncertain 2020 with power cuts, vulnerable government finances and paltry prospects for growth. Determination and resilience are probably the two words that have been used the most by those who have come out with tributes.

And what made Maponya’s contribution and achievements even more remarkable is that they came long before anyone had started talking about BEE and other forms of redress. It was quite the opposite. The bulk of his success came at a time when he was facing a political and social system set up to deliberately keep those who looked like him down.

His determination to find solutions “even to our most intractable problems”, as Bidvest Group chair Bonang Mohale put it, should be a lesson to the new generation of entrepreneurs, in an age where government support and patronage is almost taken for granted.  

Maponya, with his wife Marina, started out selling clothes and delivering milk in Soweto, recalled family friend and advertising industry veteran Peter Vundla, in an interview with the Financial Mail.  

From these beginnings, he would go on to build a family business that now spans energy, mining and transport interests. His persistence would also see him hold onto the parcel of land in Soweto, where the Maponya Mall now stands, a 65,000m² testament to his 27-year battle to see it built.

Maponya would become the founding president of the National Federated Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Nafcoc), established in 1964 as a voice for the black business community under the previous regime. In his tribute, Nafcoc president Sabelo Macingwane noted that Maponya “epitomised success against all odds as he rose from humble rural beginnings”.

Tributes came in from across government and the wider business community, as well as from President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Maponya “predates black economic empowerment”, said Vundla, and should be remembered as a pioneer who was “at the forefront of fighting all those laws which restricted black business in both urban and rural South Africa”.

Talking up Maponya’s legacy will be the easiest thing for government ministers. That will mean nothing as long as the government continues to be an impediment to the growth of small business. When there are no longer any stories of small businesses being crippled by non-payment for work they have done for government departments, then the state can pat itself on the back. It is clear from Vundla’s comments that not everyone is convinced.

“Our country still, and government especially, don’t take small business seriously,” he said. That’s despite the conventional wisdom that small business, rather than big corporations, are the only viable answer to our unemployment and low-growth crisis.

Maponya built his own wealth, despite the lack of bank-backed finance granted to white businesses, which probably explained his single-mindedness about the formation of a black bank, which eventually gave rise to the original African Bank.

Maponya maintained, in his 2014 foreword to the book A Legacy of Perseverance by Kwandiwe Kondlo, that there remained a need “for a commercial bank owned and managed by black South Africans with an acute understanding of the financial needs of the black community”.

Maponya inspired generations of black business people and as we start the new year with the loss of this business stalwart, SA should perhaps emulate Maponya’s example and persevere as it faces its many headwinds.