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



The story of black business in South Africa remains underwritten. Dispossession of fertile or mineral-rich lands through colonial wars as well as the landmark 1913 Land Act are widely recognised as among the root causes of the economic precarity of black South Africans.

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

Against all odds, and through political mobilising and resistance, black South African men and women built successful enterprises in industries as diverse as agriculture, media, financial services, retail, real estate, transport and hospitality. The book seeks to correct a historical stereotypes that assert that black people are only able to do business as ‘tenderpreneurs’.

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

Extract – The petit bourgeoise

‘Congress leadership is undoubtedly petit bourgeoise,’ Gaobakwe Joe Matthews, the son of Fort Hare Professor ZK Matthews, wrote 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 the young Gaobakwe Matthews used to refer to Moroka, had just traded in his old Hudson for £600 in exchange for a new one. The acquisition of the Hudson came not too long after Moroka had acquired another sports car known as the Packard. The 1952 Packard cost £1 600 and he bought it in cash in Port Elizabeth. The insurance alone on the Packard cost £60 a year.

Moroka, a former president of the ANC, was born in Thaba Nchu in the Free State and studied medicine in Scotland. He did much to help his fellow Africans financially. He also established shops in Orlando, Soweto, with Paul Mosaka as the manager.

Born in 1892, Moroka pursued his earlier studies at Lovedale in the Eastern Cape before qualifying as a doctor in 1918. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

When he returned to South Africa, Moroka’s practice in Thaba Nchu flourished and he was consulted by both black and white patients. As a member of a Barolong land-owning family, Moroka helped provide land for the Moroka Missionary Hospital in Thaba Nchu, the only training hospital for Africans in the Free State.

In 1930, Moroka studied surgery in Vienna, but when he returned to South Africa he was prevented from using the only available operating facilities in Bloemfontein because of his race.

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

Paul Mosaka, who had been appointed manager of Moroka’s general dealer business, went on to start his own business in Pimville, Soweto. Mosaka was born in 1907 and received his early education in Pimville. His father, who worked for Abantu-Batho, was convinced by his employers to take him to Healdtown in the Eastern Cape for his further education. Mosaka was a brilliant student and moved on to Fort Hare University, where he completed a Bachelor of Arts. He later became a teacher at a school where Moroka was superintendent.

But Mosaka was not happy to be confined in a classroom and when Moroka started his general dealer business, he was appointed manager. When Moroka gave up his interest in the merchant shops in Orlando, Soweto, Mosaka devoted his time to his own shop. 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 director of these companies.

One of the other popular retailer businessmen to emerge from the townships was Richard Maponya. An important resident of Soweto, Maponya believed in a scheme where black retailers would buy from factories without incurring the costs of a middleman who sourced the goods on their behalf. Maponya believed this would help retailers to sell to customers at lower prices.

Maponya was born in 1920 in Lenyenye, Limpopo. He was trained as a teacher but started working at a clothing company that sought someone to sell clothes to the mineworkers. One of Maponya’s tasks was to buy fabric deemed to be attractive to black buyers. Although the white manager of the store is said to have liked Maponya, he was told in no uncertain terms that he could not be promoted to supervise a white person. The manager gave Maponya dirty clothing and samples that he sold in his spare time. Maponya started an innovative scheme of getting the buyer to pay while they wore the clothes. Unfortunately, although he attracted buyers, his manager retired in 1956 – a move that frustrated Maponya’s efforts to supply second-hand clothes. He resigned to start his own shop.

He was refused a licence to sell garments but instead given a permit to sell food. In the 1950s, he opened the Dube Hygienic Dairy. He provided a peak-hour bicycle delivery service to his customers who had no electricity and refrigerators. In the 1960s, Maponya’s business had grown to include a butchery, grocery stores and a restaurant. He diversified his retail offering by opening bottle stores, fuel stations, and a BMW and General Motors dealership.

In the democratic era, Maponya, was popularly known as the businessman who built a 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 plot of land where he wanted to build the mall. In 1979, Maponya leased the land from the West Rand Administration Board for a 30-year period but could not build due to lack of capital. There were attempts to take the land away from him as he struggled to get an investor to finance a mall under apartheid.

Maponya died in 2020 at the age of 99, having accumulated respect from many South Africans.

Alongside Maponya in the Soweto of the 1960s was Ephraim Tshabalala from Dube, who made a remarkable transition from ‘pauper’ to ‘millionaire’ within a period of ten years. Tshabalala became a businessman with interests stretching from a string of butcheries, restaurants and dry-cleaning services to large motor garage operations.

By 1951, Tshabalala had built a complex of shops in the Jabavu area, at a cost of £2 000. He was a family man too, who married Caroline Ngcobo in 1942. In 1955, he acquired two sites for a furniture shop in Mofolo Central. In 1958, he was awarded sites to build a cinema. He was a donor to the Rand Bursary and was praised for his willingness to assist dependants of deceased tenants in Mofolo.

The local press continued to do an asset count of his wealth, reporting that in 1968 a movie house with 400 seats was being built at a cost of R200 000. It was called Eyethu Cinema. Tshabalala would be quoted by the Bantu magazine as having said that with loyalty to the government, South Africans could live together and ‘can still live apart according to the different ways of different people. Then there will be no trouble’. The magazine would further quote him as a man who felt indebted to his former masters, the Lombards. In the same article he is said to have dismantled a protest organised by Robert Sobukwe, who was accompanied by white and Indian comrades.

In August 1982, Tshabalala was reported to have secured a lease over land worth about R5m in Soweto for the construction of houses, flats and a business complex. At the time, Tshabalala had secured 20 sites in Pimville Zone 7 known as Selection Park. He had already invested R750 000 on the acquisition of land under a 99-year lease.

In 1983, he was seeking the post of mayor of Soweto. The New York Times referred to him as a ‘person of background’, with assets including 81 rental houses in one part of town and 22 in another, a cinema, in addition to the butcheries, garages and restaurants.

About the author

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

Native Merchants is published by Tafelberg, which is an imprint of NB Publishers a]nd retails at R320.


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