SA is poorer without you, Ntate Maponya

Richard Maponya is being laid to rest today
Richard Maponya is being laid to rest today
Image: SANDILE NDLOVU

When I first met legendary entrepreneur Richard Maponya during the fifth birthday celebration of Maponya Mall in Soweto in 2012, I didn't know that would be the beginning of an inspirational professional relationship.

I was introduced to Maponya by the mall's former communications manager Mandisa Mzizi after he cut the birthday cake while he was seated on a golf cart he used to move around at the occasion.

After giving me his mobile number, the ever friendly Maponya ordered that I should call him directly whenever I wanted to talk to him.His accessibility was a distinctive thing for me in my dealings with Maponya, a larger than life businessman.

Whenever I wanted to see him, despite his stature and numerous commitments, the legendary businessman would directly just readily avail himself at a moment's notice for interviews.A few days later, one would drive into a peaceful and gated street in the exclusive Hyde Park suburb, which was manned by a polite security guard.

"Good afternoon Sir. May I ask which house are you visiting?" the guard would ask."I've an appointment with Dr Richard Maponya," I would say.

"Okay, let me call to check with him."

Circa September 1972: South Africa's first black millionaire Richard John Maponya was born on 24 December 1926 in the Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo Province). He is best known for building a retail business empire during the 1960s and 1970s, despite the restrictions of Apartheid, and for his contribution to the economic development of Soweto township.
Circa September 1972: South Africa's first black millionaire Richard John Maponya was born on 24 December 1926 in the Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo Province). He is best known for building a retail business empire during the 1960s and 1970s, despite the restrictions of Apartheid, and for his contribution to the economic development of Soweto township.
Image: Rand Daily Mail Archives

A minute later, the guard would lift the boom gate and remind me that Maponya's mansion had a large black security gate.I would then be met by a young lady, who would then direct me to the lounge, after offering me a drink while I wait for the old man.

Fifteen minutes or so later, I would be ushered into Maponya's study, where I would find the tall figure towering over a wall of his pictures alongside some of the world's most prominent figures. This process repeated itself each time I paid Maponya a visit. The only time I interviewed him by phone was in October when I was writing a profile on him.

"I know we had scheduled an appointment, but I have been admitted to hospital. The doctor said I shouldn't meet people for the next 10 days, but we can do the interview by phone," he compromised.

During my visits to his home, some of which were for work and some personal, we touched on many topics - including politics, personal life and the role he played in the history of black business.It was during one of our conversations in 2014 when he opened up and told me about his love for pictures.

This explained why his study was filled with images, including one with former president Nelson Mandela.When I told him I knew a photographer who had pictures of his late wife Marina Maponya, he beamed with excitement and asked me to arrange a meeting with the photographer.When he finally met the veteran photographer Bongani Mnguni, Maponya became like a child in a toy store as he went through his wife's pictures.

Maponya and Mnguni spoke in depth about a collection of his pictures that captured the apartheid Struggle and they even toyed around with the idea of creating a café at Maponya Mall where Mnguni's apartheid Struggle pictures would be showcased. Unfortunately this idea never came to fruition.

When I called early last year to tell him Mnguni had passed away, Maponya was saddened.

Felicia Mabuza-Suttle at Richard Maponya's funeral
Felicia Mabuza-Suttle at Richard Maponya's funeral
Image: Thulani Mbele

"Was he ill?," he probed. When I answered in the negative, he said: "Life is something else. You might be healthy, but when it's your time, it's your time."

Still, my relationship with the acclaimed businessman had its moments owing to his fierce independence. We recently had a minor fallout with him, brought about by our disagreement about some detail in a story I wrote.

Three years ago, when then president Jacob Zuma fired Pravin Gordhan as finance minister, Maponya backed Zuma and lashed out at the then deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and then ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe for speaking out against the president. Zuma was being accused of firing Gordhan as he didn't toe the Gupta line.

"If you differ with your boss, then there is a problem. There isn't anybody in this world who is indispensable and I think [Gordhan] was a little bit on the wrong side.

"The boere are just as bad as the Guptas," said Maponya.

Thousands of people have arrived to see Richard Maponya laid to rest
Thousands of people have arrived to see Richard Maponya laid to rest
Image: Thulani Mbele

When I called him a few weeks later, he was not chuffed about a comment I attributed to him.

"The comment on the boere, though it's what I said, just came out a bit strong. I am not happy about this," he said.

This resulted in the prompt cancellation of a trip which he had invited me to go on with him to the North West to see his poultry business.A few months later, we spoke as if the incident never had happened. That was Maponya for you. He never held a grudge, was always forthright and fiercely loyal.

To those young business figures who came after him, he provided guidance and an unshakeable commitment to reaching behind to help them navigate the choppy waters that the business world can be.

Rest in peace Ntate Maponya. SA is poorer without you.

-Mpho Sibanyoni is a journalist at Sowetan 

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

X