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The Township Tycoon

Sixty years ago Richard Maponya fought the apartheid government for permission to sell soap to Sowetans on Sundays. Now, as the head of a formidable retail empire, he plans to leave a legacy that will continue to affect the lives of Sowetans for generations to come.
After six decades in business Richard Maponya is taking stock. He’s built a formidable retail empire and fulfilled his dream to build a world class shopping mall in South Africa’s largest township. Yet even as he approaches 90, retirement is the last thing on his mind.
Far from slowing down, Maponya has announced that he is gearing up for his latest project The Richard Maponya Institute, which will train youths in entrepreneurship. Maponya hopes it will have a lasting impact on improving the standard of living of black people in South Africa.
“Our youth are our promise for a better future. We need to invest in them. Every single [graduate] of The Richard Maponya Institute will have the skill and the know-how to go out into world and start their own small business, create jobs and begin to build their lives from there, because it is the small and medium-sized enterprises that should be providing the economic backbone to this country.”
The Richard Maponya Insitute is just one of many projects in which Maponya is currently involved. The Maponya Group has formed a partnership with Toyota and Volkswagen to develop the first motor city in Soweto. In addition, Maponya hopes to begin construction on a Virgin Active gym in the near future.
These developments come hot on the heels of the project that blew the lid on large-scale investment in Soweto: The Maponya Mall. The R450 million shopping complex, which opened in 2007, was the result of three decades of dreaming, petitioning and negotiating on Maponya’s part. It has been called the largest single private investment in Soweto.
Even at age 90, Richard Maponya has no plans to retire. Maponya’s unwavering determination to develop Soweto is a vision he has had since he took his first job at a clothing retailer in the Johannesburg CBD. He saw young white men running successful businesses and he said to himself, “I want to do that too.” Except in the 1950s, it wasn’t that simple.
He had to fight the apartheid government to implement his ideas. He was prevented from going ahead with his first business, a clothing retail outlet, because clothes were considered luxury items and therefore the economic domain of white people.
Yet Maponya never gave up. Where doors closed he found windows of opportunity – which explains why his retail interests are so varied. Over sixty years Maponya has stamped his name on a dairy, a chain of supermarkets and bottle stores, a restaurant, a funeral parlour, a car dealership and a bus service.
As his retail empire grew, so did the size of Maponya’s investments. He played a key role in founding Kilimanjaro Holdings and led a group of black businessmen to invest in a bottling plant in East London when Coca-Cola disinvested from South Africa. He also successfully bid for one of the first cell phone service providers, Afritel, which was later bought back by Vodacom.
Maponya’s work has not gone unnoticed. He has received the National Order of the Baobab – the highest order bestowed on an individual. He also holds honorary doctorates from the Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Johannesburg. As he approaches his seventh decade as an entrepreneur, Maponya continues to prove why he is called the father of black retail and the man who has had the single biggest impact on changing the face of Soweto.

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