/ 17 August 2005

‘I will die with my boots on’

Richard Maponya’s face glows when he talks about his latest project, a new mall he says is the first one-stop shopping facility in Soweto.

“This excites me more than anything else I have done. It will be an achievement of a dream and it will create so many job opportunities.”

If you didn’t know that the Maponya name is synonymous with black business in South Africa, you might think that the mall is his first venture. It is not.

Maponya’s name was already known and respected in black business circles when BEE was written in lower case and referred to an insect known for its honey-making and nasty sting. And that was not only because he is the founding president of the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Nafcoc) in the 1960s.

For it was Maponya who opened one of the first car dealerships in a township when he sold Chevrolets in Zondi, Soweto. Later, he started what was then largest supermarket in Soweto to rival the likes of Checkers and OK Bazaars.

The first 100% black-owned BMW dealership operating in Soweto in the 1980s belonged entirely to this doyen of black business.

All this reached a symbolic climax when Maponya became the first black person to get horse-racing colours. These were the black, green and gold of the then both banned African National Congress and Pan-Africanist Congress, making some white jockeys uncomfortable racing for him.

“I chose the colours to remind the guys that these were the colours of the future,” he says of his choice.

“I thought there was something wrong when black people could only be punters, but did not have a stake in owning the racehorses. That is how I entered horse-racing”. That story culminates in Maponya becoming South Africa’s third biggest race-horse owner.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and it is a similar anomaly and long-held dream that is today making this 79-year-old enthuse about the R450-million Maponya Mall.

“I have always believed that Soweto is a city and that people in the area needed and deserved [shopping] facilities exactly like those in the so-called white areas.

“If you look around, you will see that any white suburb has a mall; Soweto, with five-million people does not.

“If Sowetans want to buy clothing, furniture or electrical appliances, they have to go to town [the white suburbs]. Soweto people were not being taken care of,” he says.

“We are going to build a 21st century mall. We will not compromise on quality. It will look like any other modern mall anywhere else.”

The mall, expected to be ready for trading in October next year, will occupy 60 000m2. It will be located on land Maponya bought 28 years ago with the intention of developing it into a modern mall.

“The people we are [50/50] partners with, Zenprop Property Holding, are as eager as I am. We are all very excited. I think we will give the people of Soweto what they deserve”.

The project, he hopes, will banish the belief held in some quarters that blacks prefer spending their money outside their neighbourhoods. Maponya is confident that a good portion of Soweto’s estimated R10,5-billion-a-year buying power will be spent at his new mall.

Maponya feels that the government has not done all it could to develop black business, given the hardships that black business people had to contend with under apartheid.

One such intervention, he reckons, would have been for the government to start a black bank offering soft loans to those previously on the economic periphery.

“We did business at a time when the [apartheid] laws made it very difficult. Blacks were made to feel like it was a privilege to do business in the township.

“We were always reminded that we were temporary sojourners in the cities and that we should do business only in the homelands [bantustans].”

His criticism of black economic empowerment (BEE) is that it is sometimes limited to the exchange of share portfolios.

“I am not impressed with the exchange and buying of shares that do not create jobs. I would like to see people start up something and create hundreds of jobs.

“That for me would be real empowerment — enabling large numbers of people to put bread on the table and develop skills.”

At an age where other business people look back at and enjoy the wealth they created, Maponya has no intentions of settling into a rocking chair and watching the sunset.

One is left wondering how he makes the time to listen to his favourite musician, Michael Jackson, or, as he says, to unwind by watching sport.

“I cannot retire. Retire and do what? I believe that for as long as I am alive and healthy, I must do whatever I can to benefit my community. I will work until the day they sing hamba kahle. I will die with my boots on.”