Maponya’s African dream



‘I used to marvel at Papa and Mama Marina dressed in their best outfits going to the horse races, driving off in their Mercedes and BMW cars,” recalls South African businesswoman and talk show host, Felicia Mabuza-Suttle on her days growing up in Dube Village in Soweto. Her family were neighbours of the late black business doyen Dr Richard Maponya and his wife Marina in the 1960s and 1970s.

“The Maponyas’ and our family home were homes that tourist tour buses use to visit in Soweto to showcase. But the Maponyas also used to host many international guests, including tennis player Arthur Ashe, Congressman Charles Diggs, ambassador Andrew Young, UN ambassador Don McHenry, singers Percy Sledge, Brooke Benton and more,” she says. “They hosted lavish parties. He even taught us how to dress for black-tie dinners, by hosting a number of them.”

The business icon passed away on Monday at the age of 99, after a short illness.

Mabuza-Suttle’s grandfather, Ben Mabuza owned several businesses in Sophiatown and was the first black businessperson to own stores in the white-dominated central business district in Johannesburg. She recalls how her grandfather would bypass laws prohibiting black people from operating businesses in urban areas — by hiring white workers to act as owners of the stores, while he would pretend to be a general worker.

Mabuza’s ploy would ensure that the businesses remained operational and that the authorities had no knowledge of their true ownership. These entrepreneurial tricks of the trade, Mabuza-Suttle says, were exchanged between her grandfather and Maponya on the famous Ncube Drive where they both lived.

The simple exchange would grow. On Saturday April 25 1964, one of Maponya’s cars formed part of a 14-vehicle convoy that criss-crossed the streets of Soweto, attracting the attention of many residents of the largest black township in South Africa.

The parade was part of the build-up to a weekend-long national conference of traders and industrialists. The vehicles were driven by some of the delegates, who had travelled from 15 parts of the country to attend the conference, which saw the establishment of the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Nafcoc).

It was at that conference that Maponya was elected as the chamber’s first president.

By that time, the 38-year-old former teacher had already established himself as a leading Soweto businessperson, owning a small grocery store, a restaurant, a milk delivery service and experience selling clothing to miners and rural people.

The formation of Nafcoc occurred during a time when the apartheid government was increasingly tightening its noose around the political and economic rights of the black African majority. Just four years prior to the establishment of the business organisation, prominent liberation movements such as the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) had been banned and forced to operate underground.

Maponya was no stranger to the barriers of entry into business for black people at the time. His first grocery store was no more than 35m2, recalls the Free Market Foundation’s executive director, Leon Louw.

“He could sell only perishables; so no toilet paper, toothbrushes or pots,” Louw says, adding that Maponya was only allowed to own one store at a time and had to be personally present at all times during operations.

Under the radius law, Maponya was prohibited from locating his store within 6.5km of another store in the township, and 13km in rural areas.

Other restrictions placed on Maponya as a grocery store business owner, says Louw, were obligatory operating hours between 8am and 6pm, when most Soweto consumers were out of the area. Despite this, he was required to keep his doors open during operating hours even when there were no customers.

“He had to have an annual health check, and his store had to be whitewashed — the irony of the term wasn’t lost on him,” says Louw.

Most black people could not own land in urban areas and therefore had no access to finance.

Recognising the hindrance to building business, delegates at the formation of Nafcoc, led by Maponya, resolved to establish a black bank that would be funded with black money. The organisation set out an ambitious plan, going house to house in various townships in order to raise the initial capital needed to start the bank.

“They propagated the spirit of using the ‘Black Rand’ to launch the bank. If 10-million black people could each contribute R1 then

the bank would have R10-million starting capital,” says current Nafcoc secretary-general, Sonyosi Skosana

They thought that it would be easy to organise black people and to collect R1 [coins] as they had planned but it took them over 10 years to collect R1-million, says Skosana. In 1975, the organisation launched African Bank, with the first branch in GaRankuwa, north of Pretoria. In 1995, Nafcoc sold its interests in the bank because of the high costs associated with operating a commercial bank.

Skosana says: “Maponya was instrumental in the establishment of African Bank but because of the banking laws at the time, the bank was not given all the rights to survive. He believed that African Bank should’ve been owned by black people.”

By 1979 Maponya had expansion plans for his grocery stores in Soweto, leading him to acquire land in the heart of the township with the aim of building a shopping complex. The land lay vacant for 26 years after several failed attempts to secure funding for the project. In 2007, the 65 000m2 Maponya Mall opened its doors.

These entrepreneurial efforts helped black businesspeople and consumers get around the dreaded pass-law system, which restricted the movements of the majority, relegating them to the outskirts of the white-owned areas where they would only be permitted to be during certain periods of the day.

Despite South Africa’s post-war economic boom, delegates at the 1964 conference acknowledged that the majority had not been reaping the rewards. This led to them resolving to agitate for more inclusion in the country’s economic activities and the pulling together of resources.

Among the 24 aims and objectives of Nafcoc was to “protect and defend … the interests of black traders and [to] oppose any measures which directly or indirectly impede or hinder the progress and commercial development of black businessmen”.

The conference went beyond business, with the 66 delegates talking about the harsh working and living conditions of black people as a result of apartheid legislation.

Tebatso Moerane, editor of The World newspaper (formerly known as The Bantu World) noted in an address that despite the laws restricting the movement of Africans from rural homelands into urban towns, three million Africans were already living in urban areas.

He argued that the rapid urbanisation of Africans proved that there was a need for an organisation which would prioritise their economic needs.

Nafcoc, led by Maponya, Mpondo chief Douglas Ndamase, businessperson Hezekiah Mothibe Pitje and others also sought to ensure to increase the number of times money circulated within the black community before being circulated to other races.

To achieve this, the organisation resolved to establish a supermarket chain known as Blackchain.

Blackchain was established in Soweto in 1980. The R12-million project was the first retailer to sell a variety of goods including stationery, hardware, groceries, clothing and furniture in Soweto. It has since extended to become a shopping centre, which is still in operation.

Maponya’s legacy remains in the buildings that helped black people — in areas that the apartheid regime sought to ignore — gain access to goods and services as well as dignity.

Thando Maeko is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian

Thando Maeko
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