Richard Maponya remembered as ethical, extraordinary business trailblazer

Dr Richard Maponya who passed away on Monday at the age of 99, will be remembered as a pioneering entrepreneur who saw past obstacles and defied an oppressive system when doing so was unthinkable.

Dr Maponya's family confirmed that the man who formalised township retail by building a mega mall in Soweto passed on after a brief illness. “It is with sadness that the Maponya family informs you of the passing-on of Dr Richard Maponya in the early hours of the 6th of January 2020, after a short illness. The family requests some privacy during this time of grieving. Funeral arrangements will be announced in due course,” said family spokesperson, Mandla Maseko, in a statement.

Maponya, one of SA’s most respected black business tycoons, will probably be best remembered for establishing the massive R650m Maponya Mall that opened in 2007 in Soweto. It was the first investment of its size in a township.

But that was only one milestone in a long business career that saw him defy great odds.

Born in Tzaneen, Limpopo, Dr Maponya became a self-made entrepreneur from the age of 24 when he opened small grocery shops in Soweto with his wife Marina - instead of practising as a teacher after he qualified as one.

He’d later venture into a dairy distribution, car dealerships, petrol stations, and property development - building a massive business empire from scratch.

A traiblazing entrepreneur

Dr Maponya was the first black man to secure a 100-year lease for land in Soweto in 1979 and 15 years later, after several attempts, acquired it outright in 1994. It’s on this land that he built Maponya Mall. In 2012, he went on to open Maponya Motor City in Klipspruit Valley Road in Orlando East, marking another milestone for the Maponya Group.

In 1964, he helped to established the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce (Nafcoc) and became its first president. Founded to look out for African businesses' interest under apartheid, Nafcoc has remained one of the influential and vocal bodies representing black entrepreneurs. 

Dr Maponya has been honoured with several of awards including the title of South Africa's Grand Counsellor of the Baobab in gold  - the highest SA’s civilian national honour - "for his excellent contribution to entrepreneurship despite oppressive apartheid conditions". He also won various entrepreneurship prizes.

'A man of extraordinary fortitude'

On Monday morning, the president's office issued a statement saying Maponya's vision was to see black business grow to assume its full role as the key participant and driver of our economy.

"We have lost a pioneer, a trailblazer and a man of extraordinary fortitude who paved the way for the racial transformation of the South African economy," President Cyril Ramaphosa said. He called him a "rare breed of entrepreneur" for refusing to be held back by difficult operating conditions.

Acting CEO of Business Unity SA, Cas Coovadia, said Maponya distinguished himself as a successful businessman at a time when it was extremely difficult for black people to start a business.

"Dr Maponya started from humble beginnings during the apartheid period and fought against apartheid legislation to establish and grow his businesses. He also played a sterling role in the community where he lived all his life. He was a social entrepreneur well before the term was coined and ploughed back into his community as he became successful. He set an example for businesspeople and conducted his business ethically and morally," said Coovadia.

The Economic Freedom Fighters said Dr Maponya represents one of the few formidable Africans that managed to build wealth despite the restrictions under apartheid regime and did not rely on corruption and political connections to build his businesses.

"In his last days he was very worried about the high levels of unemployment and strongly believed that entrepreneurship was the solution to this. He wanted to establish an academy to train youth to become business giants as formidable as he was," said EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi.

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