Book excerpt: Native Merchants – The building of black business class in South Africa


The history of black affairs in South Africa remains underlying. The dispossession of fertile or mineral-rich land by colonial wars as well as the land law of 1913 are widely recognized as one of the root causes of the economic precariousness of black South Africans.

But how racist policies and ordinances have responded to black business initiatives with antagonism, expressly to maintain a cheap labor base for the economy, remains unexplored.

Against all odds, and through political mobilization and resistance, black South African men and women have built successful businesses in industries as diverse as agriculture, media, financial services, retail , real estate, transport and hotels. The book seeks to correct historical stereotypes that claim that blacks can only do business as “tenderpreneurs”.

Now is the time to showcase the stories of these remarkable and resilient people.

Extract – La petite bourgeoise

“The leadership of Congress is undoubtedly petty bourgeois,” wrote Gaobakwe Joe Matthews, son of Professor ZK Matthews of Fort Hare, in one of his letters to his father in August 1952.

He was commenting on Dr James Moroka’s decision to buy a brand new 1952 Hudson for £ 1,450. “Omp Gqira”, a term young Gaobakwe Matthews used to refer to Moroka, had just traded his old Hudson for £ 600 in exchange for a new one. The acquisition of the Hudson came shortly after Moroka acquired another sports car known as the Packard. The 1952 Packard cost £ 1,600 and he bought it in cash in Port Elizabeth. Insurance alone on the Packard costs £ 60 per year.

Moroka, a former ANC chairman, was born in Thaba Nchu in the Free State and studied medicine in Scotland. He has done a lot to financially help his African compatriots. He also opened stores in Orlando, Soweto, with Paul Mosaka as director.

Born in 1892, Moroka continued his early education at Lovedale in the Eastern Cape before becoming a doctor in 1918. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

Upon his return to South Africa, Moroka’s practice at Thaba Nchu flourished and he was seen by black and white patients. As a member of a Barolong landowning family, Moroka helped provide land for the Moroka Mission Hospital in Thaba Nchu, the only training hospital for Africans in the Free State.

In 1930, Moroka studied surgery in Vienna, but upon returning to South Africa he was prevented from using the only operating facilities available in Bloemfontein due to his race.

Moroka was also involved in the ANC’s Atlantic Charter Committee, which in 1943 produced the important Claims of Africans in South Africa, a historic demand for a Bill of Rights. In 1949 he was chosen as general chairman of the ANC, surprising many as he was not a member of the organization at the time. He was supported by the ANC Youth League, who expected Moroka to be more effective than his predecessor, Dr AB Xuma.

Paul Mosaka, who had been appointed director of general distribution activities for Moroka, then set up his own business in Pimville, Soweto. Mosaka was born in 1907 and received his first education in Pimville. His father, who worked for Abantu-Batho, was convinced by his employers to take him to Healdtown in the Eastern Cape to continue his education. Mosaka was a brilliant student and moved to the University of Fort Hare, where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree. He later became a teacher at a school where Moroka was superintendent.

But Mosaka was not happy to be confined to a classroom and when Moroka started his business as a general dealer, he was appointed manager. When Moroka gave up his interest in merchant stores in Orlando, Soweto, Mosaka devoted his time to his own store. He later started a burial project and registered an insurance company, which was flourishing when he died in 1963.

As a businessman, Mosaka owned the Goodwill Insurance Company, Sakies (Pty) Ltd, Sakies Service Station and Sakies Dry Cleaning Works. In his letterhead, Mosaka was identified as the director of these companies.

One of the other popular traders from the townships was Richard Maponya. A prominent resident of Soweto, Maponya believed in a system whereby black retailers would buy from factories without incurring the costs of a middleman buying the goods on their behalf. Maponya believed it would help retailers sell to customers at lower prices.

Maponya was born in 1920 in Lenyenye, Limpopo. He trained as a teacher but started working in a clothing company that was looking for someone to sell clothes to minors. One of Maponya’s tasks was to purchase fabrics deemed attractive to black buyers. Although the white store manager would have liked Maponya, he was unequivocally told that he cannot be promoted to supervise a white person. The manager gave Maponya dirty clothes and samples which he sold in his spare time. Maponya started an innovative program of charging the buyer while they were wearing the clothes. Unfortunately, although it attracted buyers, its manager retired in 1956 – a decision that frustrated Maponya’s efforts to supply second-hand clothing. He quit to open his own shop.

He was denied a license to sell clothes, but instead, he was given a license to sell food. In the 1950s, he opened the Dube Hygienic Dairy. He provided a rush-hour bicycle delivery service to his customers who had no electricity or refrigerators. In the 1960s, the Maponya business expanded to include a butcher’s shop, grocery stores and a restaurant. It diversified its retail offering by opening bottle stores, gas stations and a BMW and General Motors dealership.

In the democratic era, Maponya was popularly known as the businessman who built high quality retail space in Soweto known as Maponya Mall. He was praised for his resilience as it had taken him 20 years of fighting to own the land where he wanted to build the mall. In 1979, Maponya leased the land to West Rand’s board of directors for a period of 30 years, but was unable to build due to lack of capital. There were attempts to take the land from him as he fought for an investor to fund an apartheid mall.

Maponya passed away in 2020 at the age of 99, after earning the respect of many South Africans.

Alongside Maponya in 1960s Soweto was Dube’s Ephraim Tshabalala, who made a remarkable transition from “poor” to “millionaire” in the space of ten years. Tshabalala grew into a businessman with interests ranging from a chain of butchers, restaurants and dry cleaning services to large auto garage operations.

By 1951 Tshabalala had built a shopping complex in the Jabavu area at a cost of £ 2,000. He was also a father, who married Caroline Ngcobo in 1942. In 1955, he acquired two locations for a furniture store in Mofolo. Central. In 1958, he obtained construction sites to build a cinema. He was a Rand scholarship donor and was praised for his willingness to help the dependents of deceased tenants in Mofolo.

The local press continued to count the assets of his fortune, reporting that in 1968 a 400-seat cinema was being built at a cost of R200,000. It was called Eyethu Cinema. Tshabalala is reportedly quoted by Bantu magazine as saying that with loyalty to the government, South Africans could live together and “can always live apart in the different ways of different people.” Then there will be no problem ”. The magazine would further cite him as a man who felt indebted to his old masters, the Lombards. In the same article, he allegedly dismantled a demonstration organized by Robert Sobukwe, who was accompanied by white and Indian comrades.

In August 1982, Tshabalala was reportedly granted a lease on land worth around R5 million in Soweto for the construction of houses, apartments and a commercial complex. At the time, Tshabalala had secured 20 sites in Zone 7 of Pimville known as Selection Park. He had already invested R750,000 on the acquisition of land under a 99-year lease.

In 1983, he ran for the post of mayor of Soweto. The New York Times called him a “native,” with assets including 81 rental units in one part of town and 22 in another, a movie theater, in addition to butchers, garages and restaurants.

About the Author

Phakamisa Ndzamela is an award-winning former business reporter for Thomson Reuters, E-News Africa, Moneyweb, Business Day, Financial Mail and Financial Times London. He holds an Honors BA in Journalism from the University of the Witwatersrand. He lives in Cape Town.

Native Merchants is published by Tafelberg, which is an imprint of NB Publishers and sells at R320.

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