Dr Richard Maponya inspired a generation of entrepreneurs and industry pioneers that are shaping and influencing our world today. Talking to eNCA, Peter Vundla, friend and colleague, refers to Dr. Maponya as one of the key pioneers for black business long before Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). Peter Vundla is one of the founders of HerdBuoys, a South Africa’s first black-owned advertising agency that influenced an industry dominated by global players.

Alongside the political fight against apartheid, Dr Richard Maponya and his wife Marina fought against the system as entrepreneurs, which proved to be riddled with even more challenges than textbook business difficulties. Apartheid laws restricted business licences for black business owners, which meant that Maponya had to trade below the radar to build his empire. Dr Maponya ventured into business ventures in 1951. He bought clothes at wholesalers to resell them in townships. To legalise his business, he applied for a trading licence in Soweto. His application was declined but the apartheid government later gave him the licence to trade daily necessities.

Dr. Maponya was a South African business icon who had the fearless ability to carve markets
where others were reluctant to do so.

The trading licence imbued him to seek for more opportunities. He and his wife Marina started a milk delivery business that employed 10 men on bicycles who sold milk around the township. This self-funded venture rapidly expanded to later employ 100 men on bicycles supplying households who didn’t own fridges. “Clover saw the potential of selling milk in the townships and they started coming with big trucks to sell. They took the bulk of my clients and I realized I couldn’t compete with them,” said Maponya in a Forbes Magazine interview.

Realising that the dairy business could not compete with the giants, he started Maponya’s Supply Stores, which would grow to turn his into a household name in retail beyond Soweto. It became clear to Dr. Maponya that he needed to do something to influence policy that will level the playing field for black owned businesses under the apartheid government.

Dr. Maponya and other entrepreneurial peers established the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NAFCOC). The organisation contributed towards business policies and legislation before and after apartheid. According to NAFCOC, the organisation contributed significantly to legislation on BEE and to this day, continues to be an active voice for the welfare of small business in South Africa.

Business ventures that Dr Maponya built include filling stations; one of the first car dealerships in a township in the 1980s and others. He worked with Barloworld for ten years where they established Soweto’s first Toyota and VW dealerships, which still stand as a testament for big idea thinking and the fearless ability to carve markets where others are reluctant to do so.

Maponya Mall in Soweto, perhaps one of the most recognised symbols of his success, was officially opened by former South African president Nelson Mandela in 2007. Dr Maponya acquired the piece of land on which the shopping mall is built, in 1979. Yet it would take 27 years for him to realise the dream of a world-class shopping mall.

“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,” Maponya said years later.

Chairman of industrial group Bidvest, Bonang Mohale, referring to Dr Maponya said: “He was the first to employ black people in numbers to work for him. He gave us the expression of ‘riding the tiger of apartheid.’ He said we cannot blame apartheid for being poor, not having business licences and having so many restrictions. He said we have to ride the tiger, be brave and fearless.”

South African entrepreneurs and business moguls refer to this visionary and pioneer as one of the foremost business thinkers of his time. He laid the foundation for many who would follow in his footsteps and was part of lasting change for Africa’s big business and entrepreneurs alike. Today his legacy lives on as one of the most significant entrepreneurs to build an empire despite systemic and political barriers, where there was also no funding to build businesses as a black entrepreneur.

I wrote this article for the Business Unusual Quarterly Magazine where it was first published.