AFRICANGLOBE – Richard Maponya celebrates his 88th birthday on Wednesday, after leading a life full of success; he became, decades ago, the first prominent Black businessman in South Africa.
When his boss was promoted to CEO of the company, he wanted to reward Maponya for his performance as a stellar employee.
However, he could not promote him because South African law did not allow a Black person to occupy a higher position in a company’s hierarchy than a white, so he decided to offer Maponya free goods to sell on his own leisure time.
The arrangement worked for Maponya, who started earning profits with the clothing he sold, and eventually asked authorities for a license to open his own store.
They flatly refused. “Blacks are here to be salespeople, not entrepreneurs,” he recalls hearing.
But Maponya persevered and took the case to court, claiming that he only wanted to sell to Blacks. He also argued that opening a clothing store in Black ghettos could improve the external image of workers before their employers.
He was represented to the then-young lawyer Nelson Mandela, and although they did not win the case, they obtained a permit to open a grocery store in Soweto, the biggest Black ghetto in the country, located near Johannesburg.
“We could not sell things like tuna, because it was considered a luxury,” said Maponya, who soon turned to the sale of milk in the same ghetto.
“Many areas had no electricity, and milk is a highly-perishable product,” added the entrepreneur, who had ten employees riding bicycles around the ghetto and delivering the product at times when people statistically drank more milk, especially in the mornings and evenings.
“In a year, I had over sixty delivery men. In two, we were more than a hundred,” he recalls.
Attracted by his success, a large dairy company opened in Soweto with a refrigerated truck, giving it an advantage Maponya could not compete against.
Then, he began to sell meat, and afterwards obtained a license to open a gas station, one of the few existing in the marginalized neighborhood. It came to be regarded as the station selling the most fuel in the entire southern hemisphere.
Maponya then opened two car dealerships, which literally “died of success.”
“They went extremely well. We closed because they wouldn’t increase our allocation of vehicles, which meant we could not cope with demand,” he recalls.
At the age of 70, Maponya started a new battle, which he won in 1997, three years after the fall of apartheid, by obtaining a permit to build a shopping center in Soweto.
The complex, which bears his name, is the first owned by a Black person in South Africa. It opened in 2007 and its revenue increases steadily every year.
To Maponya, the opening of his mall in Soweto symbolizes some sort of culmination to the entire process of gaining full access to citizenship for real South Africans.
“Maponya Mall represents Black people throughout South Africa,” he proudly asserts.
Richard Maponya has been criticized for getting rich under the apartheid regime but he regards his achievements as the means of creating jobs, and improving the lives and communities of South Africans.
He also sees it as a mission. “My idea was to show that if Blacks were given the opportunity, they could succeed as much as their white counterparts.”
Apartheid Did Not Die