The life, story and example of the late Dr. Richard Maponya is one that fascinates and inspires many South Africans. And given the legacy and deep impact, this will indeed continue for years to come. As South Africans, there is indeed a lot that we should learn from his ethos. Perhaps by understanding his story better and following his examples, we can do justice to a person often described as a visionary pioneer who defied the powers of the day.
My fascination with the story of Maponya started when the Maponya Mall was opened in Soweto in 2007. At that stage, this mall was the first regional shopping center in Soweto and evidence that South Africa was indeed open for business. The signs of a growing black middle class in an economically vibrant Soweto, historically categorized by deliberate economic deprivation, helped to fuel a positive outlook about South Africa’s economic possibilities. At this stage, our positive economic growth allowed South Africans better opportunities.
The elephant statue in front of the main entrance naturally reminds of the one in front of the Lost City Hotel at Sun City. It is a powerful symbol of strength and connectedness with the stories of our soil. As such, this symbol in front of the mall embeds the center into a context where hope and courage allow for a better reality.
But to understand the story behind the mall one must understand the ethos and legacy of Maponya. From selling milk and later Coca-Cola, cars and even chicken, the business tycoon redefined the story of black entrepreneurs in the context of apartheid and indeed also of post-apartheid South Africa. His understanding of the country indeed belonging to all who live in it made him believe in a normalized South Africa where we would not be limited based on a flimsily legal definition of identity and a self-understanding of inferiority.
But even more than this, he decided not to give up. The challenge of adversity allowed for new opportunities – from owning your own racehorses to later building a shopping mall. Easy hand-outs were not available and certainly also not something that Maponya asked for nor believed in. Exceptionally hard work without the supportive edge of privilege that often allows entrepreneurial minds to succeed was not bestowed on him. Nor was it needed in the end. And yet his successes are celebrated widely.
As a son of the platteland and someone who basked in the story of PEP stores which started in my old hometown of Upington, I have always been fascinated by the ethos of entrepreneurs who have the ability to see what we at first do not and cannot see. The ability that it is possible to start ‘something’ from ‘nothing’ and to stay focused and disciplined in order to know when to say yes and when to accept failure as part of an accomplishment which allows for a learning experience in guiding a successful life.
Maponya’s story of success against the odds, the way he lived as well as mentored, guided and supported, is at least to an extent, an indictment against a sense of entitlement leading to an understanding that I deserve, I should have or even worse, that I’m a victim of the system and thus cannot but fail. With this sense of empty entitlement nor Maponya nor any other South African would/will be able to breed success that will positively fuel others.
This being said, it is important to acknowledge that everyone has their own story. We also have our own unique ways of making sense and dealing with the challenges of life in the South African context. Everybody cannot be Richard Maponya. But we can aspire to be better and to go further. We can surround ourselves with thinkers and doers allowing us to move further. In this sense, entitlement then becomes a way to give back, to invest in others and not a way to self-own.
In the end, it is perhaps not the fact that ‘you have’ which defines you. Perhaps it is what you do with what you have which allows for a meaningful life. And here the legacy of the entrepreneurial mentor that Maponya will indeed continue to guide and inspire future entrepreneurs.
We are indeed better off as a nation because of the life and legacy of Richard Maponya and many others who valiantly endured and succeeded – for our benefit as well as generations to come.