Business icon Richard Maponya keen to train entrepreneurs

The owner of Maponya Mall in Soweto Richard Maponya
The owner of Maponya Mall in Soweto Richard Maponya

Richard Maponya, the great-grandfather of black business, is not ready to rest on his laurels despite being two years short of a century.

Maponya is so concerned about the low employment rate in the country that he is planning to open an academy to train the youth on how to be entrepreneurs.

“Right now I am trying to come with an institution that must train all our youngsters so that when they graduate they get trained to use their own hands and be able to get employed or get into business in their own right,” he said.

He said he was currently searching for financial and non-financial support to make his dream a reality.

The youth unemployment rate gives him melancholy feelings while he gets euphoric when he thinks about the strides the country has made since apartheid.

Maponya is ecstatic that black people are no longer treated as pariahs in the land of their birth and they are free to participate in the democratic and economic activities of their choice.

“We are proud that we are South Africans now because during apartheid we were not South Africans, we were foreigners [in our own land],” he said.

Maponya Mall was the first regional shopping centre in a previously disadvantaged area.
Maponya Mall was the first regional shopping centre in a previously disadvantaged area.

Maponya is, however, not chuffed about the direction the economy is heading to, pointing out that living conditions were deteriorating daily for the majority of locals while the rich few delighted in opulence on a grand scale.

“In terms of the economy and how people are living, it looks like people are getting poorer and poorer and poorer, and this is a sad thing that after 25 years in our new dispensation we are still having the majority of our people very poor,” he said.

“At the same time we’re having a very serious problem of our youth, 60% of them are not employed. To me this is a bombshell. If we are not careful our youngsters will one day have a leader like Julius Malema who will say enough is enough, we’ve been hungry for so many years and we are in trouble. We can’t get employment and there is nobody taking care of us, let’s go for it,” he warned.

“Believe you me, if the youngsters can do that [revolt] we’ve not got any army to stop them. This one would be worse than 1976 youth uprisings, when we were fighting apartheid.”

We are proud that we are South Africans now because during apartheid we were not South Africans, we were foreigners [in our own land]

Maponya laments the unfortunate fact that a black government is not taking care of its own people.

“The delivery is very, very poor and that is a sad story. We just see guys enriching themselves, they are getting into politics to enrich themselves,” he said.

Maponya, who spoke to Sowetan this week, was forced to be an economic activist when the apartheid government declined to award him a licence to run a factory that would manufacture clothes.

When he qualified as a teacher, Maponya took a career detour and went to work as a stock taker for a clothing factory in Johannesburg.

It was during his stint at the factory that he got hold of offcuts and soiled robes, which he took and sold in Soweto.

When the apartheid authorities got wind of his booming business they shut it down and did not want to entertain the idea of him building his own clothing factory due to him being black.

The oppression was, however, not enough to see him giving up on his business idea.

When he was 24, he and his wife Marina decided to start a business that employed 100 people who drove around with bicycles to sell milk in Soweto.

In 1964, the struggles that were faced by black business saw him teaming up with other formidable black entrepreneurs – Dr Sam Motsuenyane, Bigvai Masekela and SZ Conco – to form the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Nafcoc) in Soweto to wage a fight for black traders against apartheid machinery.

At the time Nafcoc, of which Maponya was founding president, was aligned to the African National Congress.

Maponya was also the founding chairperson of the Johannesburg African Chamber of Commerce.

Born 98 years ago in Tlhabini, a village outside Lenyenye in Limpopo, he married Marina, a qualified social worker and the cousin of former president Nelson Mandela, in the 1950s.

After they joined forces, they became a power couple that propelled the family business into a general dealer, eatery, butchery, liquor stores and supermarket, car dealership and filling station.

For his efforts, he has scooped several awards.

In April 2015, the Durban University of Technology awarded him with an honorary doctorate.

He has scooped various awards including the Small Business Excellence Award (2007), World Enterprise Award (2008), was a recipient of the Top 100 Companies Award: Business Times (2008), Lifetime Achievement Award and a BEE Entrepreneur Award.

Last year, he became the second person to win the Lifetime Achiever Award, which is the highest accolade in the 30-year-old Entrepreneur of the Year competition.

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