November 1973: South Africa's first black millionaire Richard Maponya. Picture: Arena Holdings
November 1973: South Africa's first black millionaire Richard Maponya. Picture: Arena Holdings
Richard Maponya. Picture: Rand Daily Mail
Richard Maponya. Picture: Rand Daily Mail

" I will die with my boots on." That’s how business pioneer Richard Maponya wanted to see his days out, he told the Mail & Guardian in 2005, as construction was about to begin on the eponymous Maponya Mall.

The Soweto-based shopping centre, which he spent 27 years fighting for, now stands as a testament to a life of "dignity and wisdom", according to those who knew him.

Maponya died early on Monday, shortly after celebrating his 99th birthday.

But while Maponya described the opening of the mall as a highlight of his life, the tributes that have followed his death remember him for much more.

Maponya and his wife, Marina, built a business that spanned everything from retail to property development to vehicle dealerships — and did so despite apartheid laws expressly designed to stifle black businesses.

It is this "pioneering spirit" that he will be remembered for, says family friend and businessperson Peter Vundla. "He predates BEE. We came after him and he was our inspiration."

After qualifying as a teacher and leaving his home in Lenyenye, Limpopo, Maponya made his way to Soweto, where he began his business career in the 1950s selling clothing samples after hours, he told Forbes Africa.

Despite enlisting the help of lawyers Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela, Maponya failed to obtain a licence to set up a fully-fledged clothing store in Soweto. He did, however, get authorisation to sell "daily necessities", he later told the BBC, so he established a door-to-door bicycle milk-delivery business.

From these beginnings, Maponya and his wife — "one cannot speak of Richard without speaking of Marina", says Vundla — went on to establish a family business that would inspire other black entrepreneurs. The family also defied perceptions of prosperity along racial lines — including by taking up horse racing in ANC colours.

"He was starting new, new things, which unfortunately one does not find today," says Vundla.

But despite being "a dapper, affable man", Maponya was tough, fearless and streetwise.

He was also resolute in the face of "insane apartheid laws" that would not allow black people to own shops within four miles of each other and only allowed the sale of perishables, says the Free Market Foundation’s Leon Louw, who came to know Maponya during the 1960s.

Despite these trials, he epitomised "dignity and wisdom", evident in a generation of unsung black businessmen who persevered under apartheid, says Louw.

His efforts to fight for black business would see Maponya become the founding president of the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce & Industry (Nafcoc) in 1964. And he would continue to advocate the needs of black businesses, particularly small and medium-sized ones, throughout his life.

In the foreword to the 2014 book A Legacy of Perseverance by academic Kwandiwe Kondlo, Maponya called on Nafcoc "to continue advocating for the interests of the small, micro, medium enterprise sector and black business in general".

Says Vundla: "Our country still, and government especially, doesn’t take small business seriously. Only through small business can we create jobs, can we create wealth, can we get out of this economic quagmire … Richard represented small black business … he was indeed the father of black retailing in SA, no question."

Everything Maponya achieved was done without the financial backing available to his white counterparts, says family spokesperson Mandla Sibeko, himself an entrepreneur.

"Everything was set up to make him fail," he says. But Maponya would nevertheless rack up numerous honours during his life — including having tea with the queen of England, seeing the establishment of the University of Johannesburg’s annual Dr Richard Maponya lecture and the Dr Richard Maponya Soweto conference, and being awarded the national Order of the Baobab.

His broader contribution to business included his appointment in 1992 to the King committee, which wrote the first version of the King codes on corporate governance.

Maponya — who was tech-savvy, engaged and had a gift for "turning pain into laugher" — also advocated ethical leadership, says Sibeko.

"At a time like this in SA, there is confusion, there is just so much bling out there. Dr Maponya said: ‘Live a full life. Definitely live, but respect those around you, respect the community; don’t throw your wealth at them, be humble.’"

Maponya is survived by his 10 children. He will be buried beside Marina in Joburg’s West Park cemetery.