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Opinion: Richard Maponya, the Lion of the North

The Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Professor Tshilidzi Marwala recently paid tribute to South Africa’s entrepreneurial giant, Richard Maponya. He penned an opinion piece, Richard Maponya, the Lion of the North, published by the Daily Maverick, 10 January 2020

Richard Maponya, the Lion of the NorthTshilidzi Marwala

“…He only in general honest(y) thought
And common good to all…
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to the world, ‘this was a man’.”

— William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

As I pondered about the passing of Richard Maponya and struggled for superlatives to pay tribute to him, I found myself in a Shakespearean mood. For how does one pay homage to the man who was so fondly called Soweto’s most Humble Giant. More so, when he was someone who had seen and lived in an era that one only has read about in the history books. It is a formidable task, isn’t it?

The year 1920 is when Maponya was born. This, in itself, tells a tale of a man who lived through epochs. The South Africa of the 1920s was under British rule with King George V as the monarch and Jan Smuts the prime minister. Ninety-nine years is almost a century of bearing witness to history. Each decade brought fresh challenges and each year the fortunes and misfortunes of this country threw up barriers that would exclude and marginalise many based on race, class and gender. As Maponya once told Engineering News:

“I have had tea with Queen Elizabeth, I have entertained the Oppenheimers and I have been on first-name terms with Bill Clinton before he became President of the US.”

I have noticed in the days since the announcement of his passing that every tribute has reflected on the enormous impact that a man from humble beginnings in Tzaneen, Limpopo, had on the very fabric of our South African economy. The avalanche of anecdotes, photographs, and more importantly, testimonies from many segments of society offer small vignettes of the great man he was. An inspiration too many, Maponya demonstrated a deep commitment to fueling entrepreneurship in our townships — recognising them as vibrant micro-economies of their own and a vital blood force in our country. His support and nurturing of start-ups is in a sense a legacy that he leaves behind.

It is this foresight and his passionate desire to give back to the community that he lived, loved and thrived in that will be remembered, among other aspects of his life. It is with a great sense of gratification that the University of Johannesburg (UJ) honoured him with a doctorate and commenced a series of annual think tanks; namely, the Dr Richard Maponya Annual Lecture and the yearly Dr Richard Maponya Soweto Conference. In 2010, when UJ awarded him an honorary doctorate, it was in recognition of the remarkable contributions he made to our democracy.

Today, we recognise this philanthropic dimension of his life, a man who had forged his empire, carved his destiny across the decades from British rule, through the terrible years of apartheid and then into our young democracy. Unfaltering, he placed his footsteps firmly and with precision, driven by business acumen, a deep understanding of this land and a value system honed and matured in our South African soil. Richard Maponya was and will remain for years to come, a case study for students to understand how success could be achieved under trying circumstances.

According to Moky Makura in 2008, Richard Maponya once stated in an interview how he survived doing business under the dark years of apartheid:

“The reason I succeeded during the apartheid era was because I never took no for an answer; because if you say no to me, there must be a very good reason. If there wasn’t [a] reason I would keep on knocking at your door demanding to know the reason why.” He was so persistent in pursuing a license to open a clothing shop that some would say that the authorities finally relented because it was so unusual for a black African man to want to trade in what was then a “whites-only trade”. The story goes that he was granted a license to sell foodstuff. Innovation was definitely in his blood.

During the 1950s, he used a fleet of bicycles, with the help of youngsters, to deliver fresh milk to his customers. Imagine this at a time when successful black businesses were simply unfathomable. This is what one would call an indomitable spirit. One who could venture where no others were allowed or dared. Slowly his empire expanded from grocery stores, restaurants, car dealerships and the final jewel in the crown was the Maponya Mall. This was an affirmation that Sandton City could be taken to Soweto. He had this vision and steadfastly held on to it; despite the times, being so grim that financing a mall in Soweto would be a no-go area for banks.

Richard Maponya had done the seemingly impossible by subverting apartheid spatial planning. This was not a simple feat. In 1979, he had acquired the land for the mall on a 100-year lease and, in 1994; he bought it outright after several attempts. Despite his claim to this space, it lay vacant for a decade as he faced hurdle after hurdle until 2007, when his R650-million vision was finally realised — the first investment of that size in Soweto. A man of great determination and perseverance, Richard Maponya once said:

“I fought for 27 years for that mall and was many times denied; they actually thought I was dreaming. When Nelson Mandela cut the ribbon to open the mall, that was the highlight of my life.”

What lessons can we learn from this life? It was not all about creating an empire and not giving back to the community. We learn of his business astuteness, we learn of his willingness to have faith in the township economy, his investment in the youth, his financing of entrepreneurs — wanting others’ dreams to come true — without realising it consciously. Richard Maponya carved himself a chapter in the history of South African business. He was a business legend, a pioneer and an entrepreneur. That may seem like an achievable feat today. We must not forget that he was a black man playing at a white man’s game. And succeeding.

We must not forget that his business was forged in the streets of Soweto. The very same Soweto that burnt with fury and rage through the darkest years of apartheid. It is perhaps impossible to capture his rise and success and why today we come together to honour a son of our country. It is a life well lived. We can learn from a life. It is a life that we duly pay tribute to today.

I am reminded of the words of Maya Angelou in her poem, When Great Trees Fall:

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.”

She goes on to say:

They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”

There could not be a more fitting tribute for this giant of a man. Hamba kahle, lala ngoxolo.

Also read: UJ extends condolences on the passing of entrepreneurial giant, Dr Richard Maponya

richard maponya

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