October 5, 2008
S. African a Model in Persistence
By Donna Bryson Associated Press
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- When Richard Maponya did well as a clothes salesman, his white boss could not promote him under the rules of apartheid.
So the boss offered instead to sell Maponya damaged clothes for cheap. Maponya resold the clothes after work and on weekends, and earned enough to go into business himself.
Today, the 81-year-old owns supermarkets and car dealerships, as well as the biggest mall in Soweto.
Maponya is the most prominent in a small club of early black businesspeople who have proved what an important role black entrepreneurship can play in building South Africa. Yet his success also stands out for how rare it is in a country where a quarter of the work force, most of it black, is unemployed, and most blacks still struggle in poverty 14 years after white rule ended.
"The role models coming to the fore is important, the success stories coming to the fore is important," said Neren Rau, chief executive officer of the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "But we're still not getting to the point of the gap closing" between rich and poor.
Maponya showed early signs of entrepreneurial instincts. As a boy, he dammed a stream in the northern South African hills where his family raised dairy cattle, drew water from his pool for a vegetable plot, then sold the cabbages and tomatoes to earn extra money.
Yet he did not at first consider a career in business. He studied to be a teacher, about as high an aspiration as a black South African could have in the 1940s.
He arrived in Johannesburg a 24-year-old graduate of a teaching college in 1950, a year after the white government adopted a series of laws to keep the races apart and blacks in servitude. Maponya had a contract to teach in Alexandra, a neighborhood of middle-class black homeowners, until the government began stripping them of their property rights in the 1960s.
Maponya never made it to the school. Soon after reaching Johannesburg, he heard by chance of a white business looking for a sales assistant and offering four times a teacher's pay. He went for an interview and got the job, helping choose stock for a line of clothing sold to poor blacks at stores in rural areas and near mines.
With Maponya advising on what customers wanted, sales rose so quickly his white boss was given a promotion. That's when his boss took him aside to apologize that he could not be promoted as well, because that would mean putting a black man in charge of white workers.
The boss offered Maponya damaged clothes, which he sold to customers on a "pay as you buy" basis -- the term he coined for what's known today as layaway. The practice helped his business spread by word of mouth.
By the time jealous colleagues cut off his supply of factory seconds two years later, he had saved 50,000 South African pounds, the currency in use at the time. It was a considerable amount at a time when a nice shirt cost 25 cents.
"I thought I was going to start the first retail clothing store in Soweto," Maponya said.
White bureaucrats thought differently. He was told blacks should only think of themselves as "temporary sojourners" in the 87 percent of the country reserved for whites.
"They would say, 'If you want to become a businessman, you must go to where your father was born to find opportunity,"' Maponya said in an interview near the pool in the garden of his grand home.
The house sits in what was once a whites-only Johannesburg neighborhood that is a short drive -- and a lifetime away -- from Soweto, which was envisioned by apartheid's architects as little more than a vast dormitory for black workers. His portrait in oil greets visitors near the door, its broad shoulders nearly life- size.
Maponya, who describes himself as "just a stubborn young man who never used to take no for an answer," went to a young Soweto lawyer named Nelson Mandela for help. Mandela was not able to get Maponya a business license, but was able to get him a small-scale trader's permit.
"I did not hesitate at all," Maponya said.
His sure touch for suits suddenly didn't mean much. He drew on his days on his family's dairy farm. He started out selling milk in the small quantities preferred by his neighbors, many of who did not have electricity or refrigerators. Within six months, his business had grown from 10 employees to 50.
Maponya invested his milk profits in land and other businesses, and now is the patriarch of a family enterprise with wide interests.
For pioneers like Maponya, the desire "to prove whites wrong" may have been what kept them going, said Mthuli Ncube, who heads the new Centre for Entrepreneurship at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand. He tells his students they need passion, as well as to learn the basics of reading balance sheets and drafting business plans.
"Maybe one needs to be angry, but you have to channel it in a positive way," Ncube said.
Maponya acknowledged there were times when anger drove him.
"I've never failed in whatever I've tried to do. It wasn't my failure I was being denied the opportunity. I kept fighting," he said.
His Maponya Mall is a case in point. He bought land with plans to build a mall, but it took 28 years before he could find banks and partners willing to take what they saw as the risk of building in Soweto, even though Maponya knew many of its 1.5 million people -- a third of Johannesburg's population -- regularly trekked to white neighborhoods for upscale shopping.
The deal finally closed in 2001-02, though Maponya misspoke as he related the story, saying it was in "2021-2022." Corrected by his niece, a deep laugh rumbled from his large chest: "I'm very much ahead of time."
He has stayed in touch with the lawyer who helped him get started, even visiting Mandela in prison during the apartheid struggle. Mandela, by then retired as South Africa's first black president, was there to cut the gold ribbon when Maponya Mall finally opened.
Maponya is a celebrated and revered figure among South Africans, as awards like a recent honorary doctorate from a Pretoria university show. Angie Makwetla, another Soweto entrepreneur who at 61 is a generation younger than Maponya, has been inspired not just by what he has accomplished, but by what he will leave behind.
"One looks around in South Africa, one can actually count the old, black-owned family businesses on one hand," Makwetla said. "We need to start a legacy."
Maponya says that while politicians fought for the liberation of our country, "I was fighting for the liberation of our economy."
That day has not yet come, he said. Blacks no longer have to break the law to own businesses, but the legacy of second-class black schools persists. Ncube's center just offered its first short course for unemployed but educated blacks interested in starting their own businesses, and most of the class of 34 had never used a computer.
Most blacks have not grown up in professional homes, so don't have the chance whites might have had to learn in a family firm, intern at the offices of a family friend, or gain "some history or experience that persuades you ... that business is a good life for you," said Rau, of the chamber of commerce.
The climate is tough for any new business, black or white, amid global hard times and South Africa's reputation as strike-prone and crime-ridden.
Long denied property, black entrepreneurs don't have the capital to persuade private lenders to back their ideas and get credit.
For years, much of the focus of the government's "black economic empowerment" programs was encouraging established white businesses to share their wealth through stock transfers to black employees, for example. Maponya said the government should have concentrated on creating institutions to lend or grant capital to young entrepreneurs.
Earlier this year, the government-owned Industrial Development Corporation created a special 1 billion rand fund to finance entrepreneurs from "South Africa's marginalized groups." Shakeel Meer, an Industrial Development Corporation executive, said he looks to the next generation of entrepreneurs to create jobs.
As for Maponya's generation?
"The lesson that people can take from them," Meer said, "is that if it was possible under those conditions, there's no reason why it can't be possible now."
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