Maponya: Feeding The Nation One Generation At a Time

Perhaps it was not a coincidence that the name Maponya came up during our family New Year’s Eve dinner recently. After a hearty meal my mother opened up about some of her fondest childhood memories.

One of them is a story about a video-juke box which transfixed many children who were sent on errands to buy this or that including bread at Maponya’s in Dube, Soweto.

My mother said they would be sent to the shop with strict instructions to return promptly, but once there they would be so distracted and taken in  by the Juke Box Music Video  that they would immediately start to dance joyously imitating the dancers on the screen. They would be having such a wonderful time that some of the adults who came to the shop feeling generous and thoroughly entertained, would put a few coins in the Juke Box to keep the music going causing the children to be so elated they would  completely forget about their errands. 

It was often at the height of their enjoyment that one of them oblivious to their parent or guardian coming behind them would be surprised by a sudden  slap on the head or a painful pull by the ear.  The unfortunate child’s screams would cause the other children who had been dancing with him to laugh, but instead of them remembering to complete their own missions too they would continue to dance as if they had nothing to do until their parents came to snatch them away one by one from the duke box after many hours waiting for them to return home.

When my mother was still a child being sent to Maponya’s to buy bread and this and that, it was a small little store.  In the 1980’s when my grandmother sent my sister and I to Maponya’s to buy bread it was a big supermarket. There was no Juke Box playing music videos on a loop and we did not spend more time than we needed to there.  

Instead we took our time getting there often stopping on the side of the road to play with red flowers growing from hedges making up our neighbours fences. Putting them in our ears pretending they were ear rings and we were supermodels. We had a lot of fun getting there because once there the fun ended.

We needed to be very focused.

Our job was to buy two loaves of wholewheat brown bread, put them in the bread cutting machine and slice them, without cutting our fingers.

The bread cutting machine was very popular at the time which meant a wait in long queues before our turn came.

We would begin the painstaking process by pulling the heavy lever to open the machine which made a loud and intimidating gaga-gagaga-gagagagaga sound and put the bread inside.

We had to make sure not to push the lever too fast as the bread went  through the numerous tiny blades which looked like an entrance to the gallows. Having squashed bread was highly probable since we bought the bread freshly baked, hot and soft from inside Maponyas’ bakery. Once the machine was done cutting the bread we would have to carefully hold the bread together from both ends  without dropping the slices on the floor or squashing it and place it on the silver lever. From where we would put the plastic over the bread and pull it out and tie it. The plastic for the bread was very thin and fragile so we  needed to be extremely careful not to tear the plastic bag as we would not easily get another one if it was damaged.

Thus being sent to buy bread  was always a dangerous assignment. We had to pay full attention to what we were doing in order not to get the bread stuck in the machine causing us to  loose our fingers …or drop the bread slices on the floor which would be a disaster.

My sister and I did this often until we were “little pros”. We’d sometimes show others including discombobulated adults how the machine worked.

By sending us to buy bread at Maponyas’, my grandmother was teaching us to become independent, to do things by ourselves and stand on our own two feet – just like Maponya had.

Recently my younger brother and I were sent on a difficult errand for our parents. Before we got on the road, we stopped to get some Chicken Licken Hot Wings at Maponya Mall. Which started off as a small shop in Dube in the 1960s, that grew to become a Supermarket in the 80’s and 90’s, moved and then became a multimillion rand mall in the 2000’s. 

The small elephant logo which once graced the plastic bags we used to carry bread  and groceries from Maponya in Dube, is now a huge statue guarding the entrance of the mall which is stocked full of some of the major retail brands in the country and the world.

The impact that Richard Maponya has had on peoples’ lives can not be measured in rands and cents or even in the buildings he constructed because it goes beyond the borders of what is tangible.

It is much more personal. For me his true value is in knowing that he was once at some point in history, responsible for feeding my family and I. His vision had a personal impact on our daily lives and formative memories.

Richard and his beautiful wife Marina Maponya’s business acumen, resilience and  dedicated work ethic speaks for itself and is visible for all to see in the number of Awards he’s received for his extraordinary entrepreneurship from the National Order of the Baobab – the highest honour a country bestows on individuals – to many others which are too numerous to mention on this post.

Despite all he achieved in his life and for many people in Soweto, Maponya was still concerned about the unemployment rates in the country and was planning to open an academy to train the youth on how to become entrepreneurs before his untimely death.

“Right now I am trying to come with an institution that must train all our youngsters so that when they graduate they get trained to use their own hands and be able to get employed or get into business in their own right.”

He said he was searching for financial and non-financial support to make his dream a reality. This is the hallmark of Richard Maponya’s character, he was a man who deeply cared about his community and gave his life in service to that dream until his last days.

Even though today the daily bread that Maponya once provided has long left our bodies his legacy will remain in our lives forever. In stories like this one and countless others shared over meals with friends and family.   His efforts to provide real wholewheat brown bread to growing children at a time when the government cared less about the health of black children in Soweto – is something which is unquantifiable.  Dr Maponya, in many mays, was part of our family. I will forever be grateful to him for answering the call to make our lives easier, healthier and more prosperous.  

May his seed raise up a million more like him.

 Lala Ngoxolo Qhawe!


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