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Richard Maponya: The One who saw greatness within

Daily Maverick logo Daily Maverick 2020-01-10 Monalisa Sam
Richard Maponya wearing a suit and tie © Copyright (c) Daily Maverick , All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

I believe Papa’s legacy is for us to understand and believe that we are worthy of achieving greatness. The mall will stand and remind us that once upon a time, a man had a dream and held on to his dream through marginalisation, discrimination and barriers that were designed to ensure that he (we) do not realise greatness. He beat these odds over and over again.

As though to illustrate the magnitude of the occasion, stormy winds suddenly blew over the largest mall in Soweto a few hours before its grand opening on 27 September 2007. The skies filled with clouds and then the rain poured. The heavens were in divine order to celebrate this occasion and what would become a trajectory change for South African retail.

In partnership with Investec and Zenprop Properties, after 28 years, the Father of Black Retail Dr Richard Maponya had realised his vision of building and opening a superior, world-class regional shopping centre in the largest township in South Africa. Aesthetically no compromise was made, the mall could stand anywhere in the world. The tenanting process came with thorough requirements to ensure that design standards provided customers with an experience that they were worthy and deserving of as drivers of the consumer economy.

Papa, as I fondly referred to him, re-iterated that Maponya Mall was “for my people”. The people who supported his businesses in Soweto during the darkest days of apartheid. He insisted that the platform should give an opportunity not only for job creation but for small business creation. Soweto-born small businesses and operators now saw themselves occupying space in the grand mall. His vision was to accelerate these entrepreneurs and he continuously urged funding agencies to support black businesses who resided in the mall.

They have got to give our people a fair chance,” he would say.

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It was one day during a shareholders’ meeting, during presentations of the mall performance, that I clicked. Papa was intensely interested and passionately concerned in the performance of the line tenants, particularly those owned by black retailers. What were we doing for them besides chasing them for rent? Had we understood their story? Had we understood what additional support and tools we could offer them to ensure their success?

This was how my relationship with Papa bonded at a level that transcended commercials. It is certainly not the property management that they taught me during my property studies.

What is the right thing to do in the spirit of enabling success for those that inherently had built their businesses through disadvantage? We were often both criticised for running the mall with emotion. But how could we leave the emotion out of this growth story? A story and a mission of diversifying a largely untransformed retail sector.

Papa understood doing business with purpose and social impact long before the wake-up call of including responsible business ethics in business establishments we see worldwide today. He understood that profits follow purpose and social responsibility is paramount to legacy.

Papa valued potential and had high regard for black female talent. I personally am a beneficiary of his knack for seeing talent long before the talent had recognised itself. I was only 26 years of age at the time, not born and bred in Soweto and had never managed a mall of the size of Maponya Mall. He stood up for me when the taxi community refused to engage with an ingane (child) and referred them back to me — giving me the confidence to sit through meetings and reach a working medium with the community.

He remained accessible throughout and would call me to his home for private mentoring sessions. I treasured these moments deeply and know for sure that the path of my career and retail business thinking was shaped during those times with him.

We speak of his legacy today in the wake of his passing and I believe it is multifaceted depending on which part of his life you relate to the most. Papa wanted the people of Soweto and ultimately the youth of our country to see the best version of themselves through Maponya Mall — starting from the standards of service, quality of products and ultimate shopping experience delivered in the mall.

Most importantly I believe Papa’s legacy is for us to understand and believe that we are worthy of achieving greatness. The mall will stand and remind us that once upon a time, a man had a dream and held on to his dream through marginalisation, discrimination and barriers that were designed to ensure that he (we) do not realise greatness. He beat these odds over and over again.

Papa, the journey of a diversifying South Africa retail remains a long one and you boldly walked 99 years of it. Ours is not only to dwell in your life well lived, but to continue the work that speaks to a purpose that enables greatness long after you and we are gone.

Lala Ngoxolo, Papa. DM

Monalisa Sam is the first, and former centre manager of Maponya Mall.

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