Dr Richard Maponya: a tribute from Leon Louw, a personal friend

Dr Richard Maponya: a tribute from Leon Louw, a personal friend

What can we learn from a man who was born before nylon, TV, jet engines, faxes, cordless phones, FM radio, microwaves, tape recorders, automatic gears and electric typewriters, let alone computers?


But first, something about the great late Richard Maponya’s world, and some of my personal experiences.

Few people knew then, and almost no one knows now, how insane apartheid was. Not how bad it was but how mindbogglingly absurd. Maponya knew. With the dignity and wisdom that characterised his generation of black entrepreneurs, he survived it and prospered. 

When I met him 50 years ago, when I was a student activist, he had a small Soweto trading store. Under the loony laws he endured, no ‘black’ store could exceed 35 square metres (the size of a small room). He was allowed to sell only ‘perishables’ – no toilet paper, soap, combs, tools or pots.

He could own no more than a one tiny shop, which he had to own personally – no companies or partnerships allowed. He had to be personally in attendance – no managers. A ‘radius law’ prohibited him being within 6½ km of another store – nowhere near a station, taxi rank or bus stop where a prior store might be. 

His obligatory trading hours were 8am to 6pm – when most consumers were at work. As all employment had be in ‘white’ areas, usually far from black ‘dormitory locations’, his store had to be open when there were no customers and closed by the time they returned.

My recollection is that he and his extraordinary wife, Marina, a saintly community worker, were calmly resolute, with none of the rage I felt.

Apartheid lunacy did not end there. Black store owners were forced to have annual health checks. Their stores had to be freshly ‘whitewashed’. The irony of the term did not escape Dr Maponya. Such idiocy amused more than enraged him. He was what another heroic entrepreneur, Dr Sam Motsuenyane, called a ‘black capitalist without capital’.

There was more, much more, such as the fact that black people could not own land and so they had no access to finance. Nor could they make anything, so no burglar bars, furniture, pillows or cake tins.

I was privileged to work with Dr Maponya and other heroes of the entrepreneurial struggle against ‘the system’. After those darkest days of apartheid, mad controls were relaxed to the point where he could own land, build Maponya Mall, - the first substantial mall in a ‘black’ area – and, horror of horrors, own a racehorse.

Things got truly weird during apartheid’s twilight years. Old officials enforced old laws and new ones implemented ‘reform’ to advance black people. I recall Maponya and another great entrepreneur, furniture mogul Habakuk Shikwane, discussing how officials confiscated ‘illegal’ stock and machinery, merely to be followed by others who financed more.

Once liberated from apartheid, Dr Maponya’s advancing years were no inhibition. He steamed on to become one of our most celebrated entrepreneurs.

He anguished originally about apartheid oppression and, thereafter, about post-apartheid dependency. During his latter years, he lamented what he saw as two great obstacles to black advancement: an apparent lack of rugged risky entrepreneurship and a tsunami of stifling regulation.

He feared risk-free dependence on government largesse and patronage. His view of government resembled a mother feeding a baby with one hand and throttling it with the other.

He advocated and funded entrepreneurship training. Emerging entrepreneurs, he believed, were being (and should be) taught, not only technical skills: record-keeping, stock control, marketing, budgeting etc, but also entrepreneurship. He espoused a culture of self-sufficiency, risk-taking, determination to recover from failure, innovation, savings and the like.

He wanted government to appreciate that many laws and practices victimise emerging entrepreneurs and small business. Black people, he told me, are victims twice over: from the legacy of apartheid, and from post-apartheid over-regulation and dependency.

Dr Maponya, like his friends and contemporaries, Motsuenyane, Shikwane, Kutumela, Motlana, Lesolang and other forgotten heroes of the struggle, defied the odds to succeed in ways that could not easily be fathomed by ensuing generations.


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