In memory of a great South African business giant Sam Motsuenyane

The passing of Dr Samuel Mokgethi Motsuenyane (pictured) has brought the development and progress of black business into perspective.


This article is sponsored by Brand South Africa

Dr Motsuenyane passed away on 29 April 2024 at the age of 97, just shy of three years from reaching a century. He was born on a farm in Potchefstroom on 11 February 1927. His father grew maize, beans and sorghum, and reared cattle.

After working as a messenger and labourer in the late 1940s he decided that he would never again work for a white man, when he was arrested at a sewing machine company after some pinking shears went missing and the owner called the police and had him arrested. He was locked up for 14 days awaiting trial. When he appeared in court neither the lawyer nor the owner showed up and the case was dismissed. But when he returned to the company to demand his discharge and severance pay the owner slapped him hard in the face. Thus at the tender age of 22 that he made his vow.

In 1955 Dr Motsuenyane met the inspirational BM Masekela – “Bigvai”, one the most influential and visionary black leaders, who was at the time employed as a social worker at Modderfontein dynamite factory. 

Dr Motsuenyane and Bigvai collected money from colleagues and formed a company – The Bampa Syndicate Pty Ltd. This was around the same time that black businessmen formed the Johannesburg African Chamber of Commerce, the forerunner to the National African Chamber of Commerce (NAFCOC) in 1964; with Bigvai as the secretary. Dr Motsuenyane was educated at North Carolina State University in the US. He stayed on as President of NAFCOC for a quarter of a century, as the leader, when he was finally allowed to retire. 

He then settled down to write the history of NAFCOC, but he did not get far, since then president Nelson Mandela asked him to head an inquiry into the treatment of detainees in certain African National Congress camps.

He was a Member of Parliament and, following his appointment as leader of the Senate in May 1994, in September 1996 he was posted to Riyadh as South Africa’s first ambassador to Saudi Arabia and four other countries in the Middle East – Kuwait, Yemen, Oman and Bahrain.

Dr Motsuenyane will also be remembered for his passion for farming; black business leaders will remember his contribution to the development and empowerment at the NAFCOC.

During his leadership of NAFCOC in the 1970s the chamber began collecting R70 from its members to reach the R1m required to register a bank, later known as African Bank. The Apartheid government tried to get the homeland leaders to oppose that registration. NAFCOC was allowed to continue to set up the bank, but on condition that for every branch in an urban area, there was an equivalent branch in a homeland. It took 10 years to raise the money and the first branch opened in GA Rankuwa in 1975. Over more than 20 years they opened 30 branches across the country, before being taken over by institutional investors. 

Not many believed that they would succeed, but they did. The next big achievement for NAFCOC and its leader was the establishment of the first black-owned retail supermarket chain, Blackchain Supermarkets in 1976. 

Dr Motsuenyane used to say that they had to set up another company because the concern was that the buying power of black people was not helping development in the black areas, but only in the city and suburbs, where white-owned supermarkets operated. 

NAFCOC also contributed significantly to what is now known as the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment legislation. Some of their key programmes during included developing its “3-4-5-6” policy in 1990 to address fundamental requirements for Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) legislation – setting targets for black community participation in directorships, shareholding, outsourcing and management.

Since then, there has been significant growth and development of black-owned businesses and greater movement of black people into senior management positions, as well as black shareholding on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. 

Dr Motsuenyane was also an Esteemed Member of the National Order of the Baobab (Gold) in recognition of his significant personal achievements. He remained a humble soul who touched countless lives and empowered many businesspeople as he continued to work long past his retirement age.