Family, business, education, Soweto and a sense of community were just some of the things closest to business tycoon and trailblazer Dr Richard Maponya’s heart.
This was the sentiment shared by businesspeople, academics and ordinary South Africans during Maponya’s memorial service at the Rosebank Union Church in Johannesburg on Friday.
“He was passionate about education,” said his nephew William Maponya, as he paid tribute to the “godfather of black business” in South Africa.
“He constantly spoke about the importance of education and said it was the key for survival in the world. In doing so he also knew that he did not get to where he was just because of education or luck but because someone loved, nurtured and taught him to respect other people. His family was important to him.”
Maponya’s memorial service, which according to William was a “celebration of his life”, brought together leading business people Tokyo Sexwale, Sizwe Nxasana and his wife Wits University chancellor Dr Judy Dlamini, media personality Basetsana Kumalo and former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba to “honour him”.
Maponya Group representative Ladi Adelusi, a business associate and a close friend, had the crowd in stitches as he spoke about their friendship. He said Maponya had “an incredible work ethic even at his age”.
“We would talk every night before going to bed and every morning when I woke up. If I had not called him by 11am, he would call to check if everything was going OK with me. If I had not called him by 10pm, he would call to remind me that we had not had our night time chat,” he recalled.
Adelusi paused for a moment, then let out a slight chuckle: “He still signed his own cheques. He was the only person I knew who still used a cheque book.”
Maponya’s love for Soweto was evident in much of the legacy he has left behind. He achieved a number of firsts, including the opening of the first dairy products shop in Soweto in 1952, complete with bicycle deliveries.
He was the first black owner of a BMW dealership in Soweto in the 1980s and in 2007, he realised his 26-year-long dream of giving the people of Soweto their own glittering shopping centre with the opening of Maponya Mall.
Adelusi added: “You could not talk to him about business and not talk about Soweto and its people. It would be like you have said nothing. He realised that all Soweto needed was development,” he said.
Maponya was widely respected as a leader of black business. Having been a mentor to several entrepreneurs, his mark on the country’s business landscape is indelible. Winterveld farming community member Ntombi Matjene, who was mentored by Maponya said: “He should have been honoured while he was still alive.
“Ntate Maponya believed that agriculture was the answer to poverty eradication,” she said. “He was my mentor and that was all God’s favour.”
Mashaba said Maponya deserved credit for “working hard and overcoming oppression”.
“I stand here as a success in my own right and I am honoured to be able to pay homage to a man who showed me that we are the captains of our own destiny,” he said to loud cheer.
According to Mashaba, Maponya “sparked a desire in me to follow in his footsteps”, especially because of the values he lived by.
These included him “being a risk taker, a hard worker, a family man and being for education and skill development”.
Academics – including University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor Professor Tshilidzi Marwala and Durban University of Technology’s Shakeel Ori – said Maponya unequivocally deserved all the honour bestowed upon him by universities.
“His life was remarkable,” said Marwala. “He showed that patience was a necessity for success.”
Maponya, who died aged 99 on Monday morning following a short illness, was a father of 10, a grandfather to 25 and a great-grandfather of 19.
He celebrated his birthday on December 24 and was still active and planned set up a business academy in November last year.
Another memorial service will be held for him at the Maponya Mall on Monday. He will be buried in Soweto on Tuesday.