Opinionista Khwezi Mabasa 15 January 2020

Richard Maponya’s legacy and lessons for BEE

Richard Maponya’s story and entrepreneurial legacy challenges the prevailing narrative from some quarters as well as underlying assertions about black business in South Africa. It questions the assumption that black business has always emerged on the basis of patrimonial state support.

Black business has been de-legitimised in the post-apartheid era for two reasons: the shortcomings of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), and ongoing state capture investigations. Several research reports indicate that different BEE policy iterations have not addressed South Africa’s racial socio-economic inequalities.

Furthermore, the state capture inquiry has revealed how some organisations and individuals manipulate BEE policy imperatives to pursue corruption, or nepotism. These trends inform varied perspectives, from both the right and left, which view South Africa’s BEE model as inherently corrupt. These critics point out that the current black business model will never eradicate racialised poverty, economic exclusion and unequal income distribution.

Black capitalist class formation is perceived as a natural enabler of neopatrimonialism, which is not conducive for economic growth and development. Some detractors even believe that BEE and socioeconomic redress impede investment and policy certainty. This dominant narrative explains the negative characterisation of all black entrepreneurs as “tenderpreneurs”, and the anti-developmental sentiment underpinning statements from BEE detractors.

Richard Maponya’s story and entrepreneurial legacy challenges these underlying assertions about black business in South Africa. It questions the assumption that black business has always emerged on the basis of patrimonial state support. This view overlooks historical black entrepreneurship, which emerged organically without legislative, or financial support from colonial state institutions.

The history of Maponya elucidates how South Africa’s pre-democratic black business tradition emerged as a result of a conscious black entrepreneurial agency. His business development debunks paternalistic historical narratives, which do not afford early black entrepreneurs any independent economic agency. This point is emphasised in the upcoming Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra), research publication titled: Beyond Tenderpreneurship: Rethinking Black Business and Economic Empowerment. The authors stress the importance of studying and examining pre-21st century black business development.

These findings provide an alternative narrative in black entrepreneurship history. The accounts trace black business development to the 19th century and reveal how early black entrepreneurship emerged independently without paternalistic state support. There are several lessons and insights to be drawn from these early forms of entrepreneurship within African communities.

Another important aspect of Maponya’s entrepreneurship legacy is his emphasis on the township economy. This point is ironic considering the contemporary public policy discourse on building township economies. He viewed Soweto as a location conducive for accelerating both business and broader human development. In other words: Maponya’s black entrepreneurship was linked to developing local economies in African communities. He was not obsessed with integration into white-dominated business value chains, located in highly urbanised geographic areas outside the township.

This township economy legacy has been sustained in the contemporary era by young black entrepreneurs in Soweto. They operate in different sectors and use the social capital associated with township culture to market their businesses. However, Mistra’s upcoming research publication suggests that this model needs to be developed further. This requires a paradigm shift in BEE policy thinking, which appreciates and augments support for black informal business in townships.

The current BEE model focuses on transforming ownership patterns in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE). This strategy is important, however, policymakers cannot limit BEE to the JSE. It is a significant financial institution in South Africa’s political economy. But the JSE does not represent the totality of economic investment, transactions and livelihoods in the country. The need for broadening BEE beyond the confines of the JSE is exemplified in Maponya’s entrepreneurial philosophy and praxis.

I am not arguing that transformation policy interventions should neglect, or overlook the exchange. However, there is a need to acknowledge that black entrepreneurship, which straddles both formal and informal economic sectors, exists outside this institution. Therefore, it is imperative to develop varied support policy interventions that accommodate this diversity among black entrepreneurs.

The last lesson from Maponya’s legacy is the need for coherent advocacy and organising of black business. He defied the false belief, supported by some citizens, which attempts to separate business from politics. Maponya’s leadership in the National African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Nafcoc) highlighted the necessity of appreciating the politics-business-relations nexus. He acknowledged that black entrepreneurship could not expand and contribute meaningfully to South Africa’s economic development in an authoritarian legislative context. This non-conducive political environment required organised black business advocacy and solidarity.

Developments in the post-apartheid era have created substantial fissures in South Africa’s black business stratum. This has weakened the solidarity and advocacy displayed in the past, which obtained some concessions for black business development in South Africa. Contemporary black entrepreneurs must draw from past experiences and reflect on how to organise around important socio-economic issues.

But this advocacy must not be limited to transforming the JSE, or integration into white-led sector value chains. It must also raise a deeper political economy from structural impediments that sustain racial inequality in society. These include, among others, uneven spatial development, economic concentration, limited development finance and marginalisation of informal economic activity. A black business advocacy strategy centred solely on transforming equity, without restructuring the South African economic base, will fail. DM

Khwezi Mabasa is a senior researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra). The Mistra research publication Beyond Tendepreneurship: Rethinking Black Business and Economic Empowerment will be launched on 27 February 2020 in Johannesburg. More information can be found at www.mistra.org.za

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