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Richard John Pelwana Maponya (1926 - )

The Order of the Baobab in

Richard John Pelwana Maponya (1926 - ) Awarded for:
His excellent contribution to entrepreneurship despite oppressive apartheid conditions, and for serving as an inspiration to disadvantaged South Africans striving for business success.

Profile of Richard John Pelwana Maponya

Richard John Pelwana Maponya was born in the then Northern Transvaal (Limpopo) on 24 December 1926.

Although trained as a teacher, Maponya started working in the 1950s at a clothing company seeking an educated black person to sell garments to miners and rural people. In the starkly racist language of the day, the company called the department the ’kaffir truck’.

Maponya proved an adept buyer of material that would appeal to black people. Just by touching a piece of fabric, he says, he could tell whether it was from Britain, Germany or Italy, etc. The department’s white manager took a liking to Maponya, but told him: ’You can’t become a general manager because you can’t oversee white people – there’s a glass ceiling over your head.’ However, the manager gave him soiled clothing and cloth samples, which he sold in his spare time, allowing him to build up capital.

Maponya attracted buyers for his clothing, using a ’pay-while-you-wear’ scheme, unusual at the time. When his patron retired in 1956, his supply of second-hand clothing ended and he resigned. When he engaged himself in business around 1956, Maponya was living in Soweto. He wanted to open Soweto’s first retail clothing store, but was denied a licence. In 1957, he went for legal advice to Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, who then ran Johannesburg’s first black law firm, but they were unable to help as their own conditions were too restrictive.

Fortunately, the apartheid-era bureaucrats did give Maponya a licence to sell foodstuffs, which were to form the kernel of his fortune. He became a member of Johannesburg African Chamber of Commerce in the mid-1950s when it was formed and finally become its president. In the early 60s the Johannesburg African Chamber of Commerce under Maponya initiated the drive to unite small businessmen nationally. This initiative led to the formation of National African Chamber of Commerce (NACOC) in 1964. Maponya became the founding president of NACOC from 1964 to 1966.

In 1979 the government of the day required NACOC to disband and re-establish itself along ethnic lines. The leadership of NACOC refused, stood their ground and opted for a federation, becoming the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce (NAFCOC).

Maponya set up the Dube Hygienic Dairy, the first business of its kind in the Soweto neighbourhood at the time, and it is still operating. At a time when Soweto lacked electricity or refrigerators, he dispatched deliverymen on bicycles speedily to transport customers’ milk at peak hours. By the 1970s, when regulations had relaxed slightly, he set up a butchery, two grocery stores and a restaurant under the licence of a ‘native eating housekeeper’.

Maponya welded those businesses into a successful filling station and, in time, a General Motors dealership. When that American motor company disinvested from South Africa in 1987, he pursued other businesses, including supermarkets, bottle-stores and bus transport. He also ran a successful BMW dealership in Soweto, but grew frustrated at the small allocation of vehicles allowed him, which he says he was able to sell within a week.

When Coca-Cola disinvested from South Africa, Maponya put together a group of black businesspeople, formed the company Kilimanjaro Holdings (Pty) Ltd, and put in a successful bid for a bottling plant in East London. Maponya was elected chairperson.

Most recently, Maponya has been involved in the property business, with a focus on building offices and small factories. His group, which boasts a logo portraying a trumpeting elephant, has offices in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and Plettenberg Bay.

For 26 years Maponya’s dream has been to build a shopping mall, Maponya Mall. When completed, the 65 000-m squared complex will be Soweto’s largest.

Maponya’s career highlights include being a trustee of The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and founder and first president of the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce.

Richard John Pelwana Maponya rose from the dust-choked, arid and impoverished rural areas of Limpopo to become one of the most respected and respectable self-made businesspeople in South Africa. Despite the humiliation of apartheid, the deliberate deprivations and racial ceilings and laws forbidding entrepreneurial spirit among black people, he proved a visionary with a dream that refused to die.

He has eight children and 18 grandchildren.