Breaking S. Africa's business barriers

THE other day a group of visiting American businessmen asked Richard Maponya whether they should invest in South Africa. The question is too simplistic, answered Mr. Maponya, one of this country's very few successful black entrepreneurs. What matters to blacks in South Africa, he said, is how foreign firms invest.

``You must be seen to be part of the black community,'' Maponya counseled his American visitors. And as far as Maponya is concerned, that means putting new investments in South Africa's poor black townships rather than in the white areas.

Not all blacks agree with Maponya's relatively soft line on the disinvestment question. Many regard him as a capitalist and a political conservative. But Maponya's view on foreign investment probably reflects the very least that is being demanded of foreign companies -- that is, at a minimum, to identify more closely with their communities and their po-S. AFRICAS. AFRICA litical aspirations, and less so with the white establishment of South Africa.

Maponya can think of no better place for new outside investment than Soweto, the poor, segregated community of over 1 million blacks on the outskirts of ``white'' Johannesburg.

An infusion of capital could give Soweto ``the kind of heartbeat a city needs,'' says Maponya. Looking out of Maponya's Soweto office is a monotonous view that illustrates his point. There are no office towers, no large factories, no apartment complexes, no major hotels. Only street after pockmarked street of mostly poor housing and the occasional shop or gasoline station.

Maponya knows from experience how difficult it is for a black in South Africa to raise capital. That is why he feels foreign investment in black communities could play such a crucial role. Foreign companies could, through partnerships, help blacks get started in business where it would otherwise be impossible. And by investing in black communities, foreign firms could help communities generate their own local capital, says Maponya.

Maponya says Soweto most needs investments in light industry, retail development, and housing.

Maponya ackowledges that some foreign investors may regard Soweto and other black townships as volatile communities. But he says the black consumer market is huge and growing. And given the political sensitivity of some blacks to foreign investment, investments in black areas may actually prove less ``risky'' in the long run than if made in the white areas. By continuing to invest in the white areas, foreign companies may jeopardize their investments by indirectly helping those arguing the case for disinvestment, he says.

There are historical reasons for Soweto's poverty and physical dullness. Until very recently, South Africa's ruling whites held that urban black communities existed only for the convenience of white business. Some day, according to the official orthodoxy of apartheid, ``temporary'' black labor camps like Soweto would no longer be needed by white business and blacks would stream back to their rural tribal ``homelands.''

Meanwhile, Soweto grew and grew. Finally, the government grudgingly acknowledged over the past several years that urban blacks like those in Soweto are ``permanent.'' The government now allows blacks to buy homes in the townships and take out 99 year leases on the land. And the government has removed some restrictions that used to make it impossible for blacks to start businesses other than ``mom and pop'' operations.

All those obstacles, plus plenty of others that still exist, make Maponya's business success remarkable.

Maponya started as a clerk in a white clothing manufacturing company in Johannesburg. Spotting an opportunity, Maponya bought samples and articles soiled during manufacture and hawked them on the streets to blacks after hours and on weekends.

``I made a lot of money and that was how I accumulated my first amount of capital,'' Maponya recalls. He turned his attention to the then young community of Soweto. Brimming with business ideas, he applied for the right to open a black clothing store.

The white government officials who administered Soweto were not impressed. ``They said we cannot allow you to trade in clothing, because that is a luxury item and should be left to [white businessmen in] the city,'' remembers Maponya.

The only kind of businesses blacks were allowed to own then were those dealing in essentials, like food. Irritated but ambitious, Maponya complied and started Soweto's first milk delivery service. He put 25 milkmen on bicycles and sent them throughout the township.

Today, Maponya works from behind a cluttered desk at Mountain Motors, the General Motors dealership he runs in Soweto. Adjoining the dealership is a 10-bay Shell gasoline station owned by Maponya. Behind the GM dealership sit two large luxury buses, part of a fleet of six operated by Maponya, that provide chartered transport countrywide for blacks.

Five minutes from the gasoline station is ``Maponya's'' discount supermarket, which opened in 1983 and is one of the largest food stores in Soweto. Next door is the older food store owned by Maponya, weathered but still doing business.

Asked if the older store will be closed, Maponya says no. Rather, it will be remodeled into an electric appliance store. (The government is just now completing the electrification of Soweto.)

That's not all. Maponya also owns a string of bakeries in Lebowa, the ``homeland'' where he was born, has interests in a food and clothing wholesaling business, and is planning new shopping complexes at four sites in Soweto and one in Lebowa.

Maponya also says he is ``very involved'' in breeding and racing horses. He owns 43 race horses and says his favorite remains one of the first he bought, now retired, named ``Another Color.''

Maponya admits he walks something of a political minefield as a wealthy black businessman. Fellow blacks keep a close eye on him to see that he is not exploiting the community, or getting too chummy with whites, or serving as a front for white investors, or getting complacent politically.

``Your thinking has to be right'' politically, says Maponya. ``You don't have to be a radical because you're not a politican. But at the same time you cannot be an Uncle Tom. Blacks must understand that you are one of them.'' (It is hard not to notice that Maponya's luxury buses are striped in black, yellow and green, the colors of the outlawed African National Congress.)

Maponya is proud that none of his shops were attacked during the Soweto upheaval in 1976, or last year when unrest again erupted in the township.

However, when Maponya's new supermarket opened in 1983, some blacks boycotted the store. A white supermarket chain manages Maponya's supermarket under contract and that same white chain had earlier fired a number of blacks from one of its own stores. Maponya says the boycott was aimed at the white supermarket chain and not at him. It is not clear though that blacks were making such a fine distinction.

Maponya says it remains extremely difficult for blacks in South Africa to raise capital and become independent businessmen. So he is not opposed to whites investing in black business ventures ``as long as blacks are not made just a front.''

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