Business pioneer Richard Maponya and entrepreneur S'bu Leope. PHOTO:


AS SOUTH AFRICA negotiates its way out of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the key ingredients required for successful and sustained economic recovery is entrepreneurship.

South Africa needs business of all types: traditional and new age technology businesses of all shapes and sizes, many owned by people who, owing to the country’s history, were prevented from running businesses.

The truth is South Africa has much richer and colourful business heritage that its most prominent companies suggest.

Yes. There are companies such as Anglo American founded in 1917 by Ernst Oppernheimer that are still standing as global giants after 100 years; there is also Rembrandt founded by the new nemesis Rupert family as well Pick n Pay, founded Raymond Ackerman.

The emergence of Elon Musk from a white middle class background with a mixture of private and public schooling is not an accident of history, in the form of Apartheid South Africa, pr geography, being raised in the capital.

It gave him the formative grasp of technology and his entrepreneurial vision.

He had to move to Canada and the United States to benefit from the country’s mix of academia, venture capitalist and technology ecosystem to build his many companies, but the ethos that shaped his vison is South African.

Black business also has a rich history to draw from.

This is not just the generation of new South African companies established in a democratic South Africa as the country pursued Black Economic Empowerment.

The most prominent of these include Saki Macozoma’s Safika Holdings, Cyril Ramaphosa’s Shanduka, Patrice Motsepe African Rainbow Minerals (ARM) and African Rainbow Capital (ARC) as well as Sandile Zungu’s Zico Investments.

This group draws inspiration from the generation of Richard Maponya and Sam Motsuenyane, who founded the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce (Nafcoc), as well as African Bank but the history of African entrepreneurship goes back even further.

Business journalist Phakamisa Ndzamela, who has researched black enterprise and entrepreneurship, argues that it dates back to precolonial times – the period from the early 1600 when the Khoi successfully repelled the English East Indian Company from setting up a station in the Cape.

 After unsuccessful attempts by the English, the Dutch East Indian Company emerged as a superpower by the 1650s and Jan Van Riebeek, having learnt from the English, decided to use brutal force and co-option to conquer and repel the naïve Khoi population and establish what became the Cape Colony.

In the interior of the country, in modern-day Limpopo, trade in the gold by a Mapungubwe kingdom through East Africa had shaped the landscape and implanted early traces of African trade.

Ndzamela says the emergence of the African entrepreneurs can be traced to the second half the 1800s starting with the establishment Missionary Christian Education institutions such as Lovedale College, Dale College in King Williams Town, Hilton College in Natal, among others.

These institutions produced a middle class of Africans who became civil servants and worked as teachers and postal services workers, such as Sol Plaatjie, and clerks.

Their education and earnings allowed to accumulate sufficient savings to become entrepreneurs, including commercial farmers and merchants.

The entrepreneurs who emerged in this era include Paul Xiniwe, a missionary educated hotelier from the 1800s who lived in King William Town.

In Durban, there were families like the Makhanyas and Qwabe, who were sugar barons with ownership of sugar cane farms and sugar mills.

The work of these entrepreneurs was supported by the activism of the lives of John Tengo Jabavu, editor of the Izimvo Zabantu, the first black-owned newspaper whose granddaughter, Noni Jabavu, was married into the Cadbury Empire.

The formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 disrupted the wealth accumulation of Africans as it drove many out of the civil service to make way for illiterate Afrikaner.

While some were driven to entrepreneurship otherwise were driven to penury by the passage of the Native Land Act in 1913, which took black people off the farmlands they owned to put their labour at the disposal of mines like Anglo, established in 1917, as well as the Wages Act of 1925, which prevented blacks from under cutting whites in earnings and was accompanied by legislation for job reservations.

Richard Maponya represents entrepreneurs born after the formation of the union, in 1920, and practiced his entrepreneurship in the grip of apartheid.

Ndzamela’s research stop at the time when the National Party came to power in 1948 but he notes that the generation that came after deserves proper acknowledgement and documentation.

When Dr Sam Motsuenyane and his peers wanted to start African Bank in 1964, they struggled to raise a R1 million, the required equity at the time which started with a contribution of R70 at a Nafcoc Conference.

Today’s equivalent of that amount can be single handedly raised by the BEE tycoons, but would most likely require the backing of white capital.  

Motsuenyane’s toils sometimes threatened to be in vain with the neat collapse of Africa Bank and continuous infighting among successive NAFCOC leaders.

A critical feature to be examined from this generation is how they related to the apartheid government.

Maponya served in the Soweto Urban Council, a creation of the apartheid government to govern the newly formed township.

Another tycoon of the time Ephraim “ET” Tshabalala, ascended to the mayoship of Soweto in the early 1980s as a millionaire with multiple stores and over 100 rental properties.

In the homeland of Bophuthatshwana, businessmen like ABC Motsepe needed cordial relations with the homeland government to operate their businesses.

It is unlikely that this generation would have prospered had they had opted to work against, rather than within the confines, of the apartheid system.

They did what was needed at the time to advance the course of economic inclusion.

In a democratic South Africa the current generation of entrepreneurs has a rich and inspiring history to draw from, vast opportunities in South Africa and other parts of the globe to pursue their wealth but possibly a duty to ensure that the wealth is spread more equitably and that their contribution benefits the poor and marginalised.  



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here