Herman Mashaba: ‘There’s a way out of difficult circumstances’ | Photo: Tonya Hester
Ok, so the risk of telling a politician’s story is that SOMEONE’s not going to like it – you can’t please all of the people all of the time. But love or hate his politics, you can’t deny HERMAN MASHABA has come a long way from an unpromising start in life. Here, he recounts his journey from impoverished petty criminal and marijuana smoker to family man with a full life in business and politics…
This interview was first published by Thislife Online in 2016
HERMAN, 58, WAS BORN NEAR PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA, to Mapula, an uneducated domestic worker. After a challenging childhood, at the age of 25 he defied his restrictive circumstances to found Black Like Me, South Africa’s first black-owned hair company. Later, as the executive chairman of Lephatsi Investments, a massive mining and construction company, he lectured on business leadership both globally and at home, mentored young entrepreneurial hopefuls, and was awarded an honorary doctorate in business administration. In 2013 he instituted a court case against the Department of Labour and bargaining councils to amend the labour laws he says are crippling our poor communities. Elected Mayor of Johannesburg in August 2016, a position from which he resigned in October 2019, Herman has been married to his wife Connie for more than 30 years and they have two children, Khensani (22) and Rhulani (19).
‘I WAS BORN on 26 August 1959 in Ga Ramotse, a remote rural village in Hammanskraal, about 30km north of Pretoria, South Africa. The village consisted of clustered mud homes reached by dusty red roads lined with peeling gum trees. My grandfather, having high hopes for my future, named me Highman, which made me the butt of many jokes amongst my peers until I changed it to Herman later in life.
When I was two my father died, leaving my mother, Mapula, to earn a living for her four younger children (our eldest brother, Pobane, was old enough to fend for himself). My mother, being unqualified for any other job, left home to become a domestic worker in Johannesburg, leaving my three school-going sisters to bring me up.
One of the reasons I survived without parents at such a young age was that the entire village raised me. My sisters, Esther, Flora and Constance, would set off for school early in the morning and leave the front door ajar so that when I woke up I could toddle down to our neighbours who would clean me, feed me and keep an eye on me during the day until my sisters came home. My sisters kept house, cooked and cared for me, maintaining a stable home between my mother’s fortnightly visits.
A spirit of ubuntu [community] existed in our village as we all cared for one another as family, and shared a faith that held us together. Weekly, we would meet in one of the homes to praise and celebrate a loving God. As youngsters, we were able to forget our grumbling stomachs and the fact that we missed our parents as we fell asleep to the sound of hymns sung well into the night. It was here that a peace and a deep knowledge of God’s love settled in me in a way that went beyond anything that the world could ever do to me.
There was great excitement in our home whenever my mother returned. My earliest memory of those times is of her scooping me into her arms as she walked through the front door, and carrying me about on her hip while she cooked. I remember the anticipation of waiting to see what would emerge from her plastic carrier bags, and even a bar of soap was received with exclamations of delight!
Eternal optimist: Herman and someone else’s BMW | Photo © Herman Mashaba
One such evening as I lay sleepily on my mother’s lap listening to the adults, she began to tell the story of how her grandfather had died. He was a farm labourer whose wage was a bag of mealie meal to feed his family at the end of each month. One day he was bringing in the harvest with his fellow workers when the farmer’s young son, barely taller than the long grass he looked through, chose my great-grandfather as his moving target to show off his shooting skills to his father. He shot him dead.
Seeing the despair in the eyes of the adults who were listening to my mother that night, I resolved never to come between a white man’s folly and his unbridled power. The fear instilled in me by my great-grandfather’s fate meant I never joined my high-school peers in seeking weekend garden jobs in white households in Pretoria. And, as a result, my self-esteem remained intact.
School was made difficult by the requirement for Afrikaans. Our teachers were strict, and every day I risked the possibility of a beating for being late for school after completing my morning chore of collecting the household’s water. I’m grateful for a teacher, Mr Khase, who took it upon himself to give us extra lessons on Saturdays. His efforts paid off when we all passed the dreaded Grade 8 exams.
I went on to Ratshepo High School in Temba township in 1974. Later, the Soweto uprisings sparked a reign of terror more tyrannical than before, and even rural areas like Temba teemed with black police officers wielding sjamboks [whips] and carrying out their oppressors’ laws with injustice and brutality.
A boy called Louis Mkhetoni and I became firm friends. I remember how we’d watch with aching stomachs as the other children opened their lunchboxes at break, and how we’d steal drinks of tap water from the nearest house to ease our hunger pains. I wince to think how desperate we were. We said our prayers every Sunday with sincere hearts, but during the week we’d sneak through the neighbouring farmer’s fence at night to cut his firewood and take water from his dam. It was pure survival. We moved in groups, with thumping hearts, careful not to be caught.
Starvation makes one resourceful, and like most permanently hungry kids in this situation, Louis and I entered the world of petty crime to survive. We became dealers of the small amounts of dagga [marijuana] that we smoked with the other high-school kids. I also organised and managed gambling games played by men in the village, earning a cut of the proceeds. So began my entrepreneurial practice!
Like many township teenagers, Louis and I also sniffed benzene and used alcohol from an early age. Looking back, I am not proud of this lifestyle nor the fact that, as a teenager, I simply followed the pack instead of doing what I knew to be right. I can only thank God that I did not become another addiction statistic as a result, and that I passed Matric and did sufficiently well at school to qualify for university entrance.
During my Matric year, I attended a beauty pageant at Hans Kekane High School. I had played the field for many years, and my practised eye fell on the most beautiful woman in the line-up before she’d even won the title. Her name was Connie Maloka. She wore a bathing suit, a red cape, dainty white shoes and an air of detachment which kept me on my toes for many years as I wooed her towards marriage!
There was no money for further study after school, but miraculously my mother was able to arrange a Catholic bursary through the seminary where she worked as a cleaner. I studied for a BA degree for 18 months at the University of the North, a microcosm of the politically anarchic state of the country as a whole. Here, too, we were ruled with an iron fist. I recall strongly Afrikaans-accented lecturers saying, ‘You boys and girls will never amount to anything!’ I left angry, wavering between hopelessness and bloodlust. A newly acquired knowledge of our country’s political situation and a strong sense of black consciousness meant my fear of the white man had turned to anger. I considered joining Umkhonto we Sizwe [the military wing of the African National Congress] for training abroad as a killing machine to rout out the oppression in our country.
Student Herman with Connie: ‘Her air of detachment kept me on my toes’ | Photo © Herman Mashaba
In spite of these strong emotions, I saw fit to meet my obligations to pay back the loans incurred whilst at university. Apart from my bursary and student bank loan, my sister and her husband – who had very little to live on themselves – had sacrificed their own needs to meet my living expenses.
I suppressed my reservations about working for whites, and my first two jobs (as a clerk at Spar and then at a furniture manufacturer) gave me an entrance into the wider job market. Two years later, I had almost finished paying off my student loan and had my sights on the white wedding that Connie had always dreamed of.
My next bold step towards emancipation was buying a brand new car, which meant I could work independently as a door-to-door salesman. At last my hard work began to show in my salary cheque at the end of each month. I initially sold crockery, cutlery, linen and fire-detection systems, but soon realised these items wouldn’t lead to repeat customers. I’d need to sell a product that my customers replaced regularly to make the most of the relationships I formed easily. Scouring the newspaper, I came across an opportunity in sales at Superkurl, and this was to be a springboard for my big break.
Remembering the unbelievable result that perm lotions and black haircare products had had on my hair on our wedding day, I knew Superkurl products were something I could sell well. The black haircare market was insatiable and, within no time, I was achieving accolades for top salesman and an ever-increasing pay cheque. But I also knew that I didn’t just want the gold watch at the end of a lifetime of working for someone else; I wanted my own business!
I saw my opportunity when I noticed that the top chemist, Johan Kriel, was undervalued in the company and ripe for the picking. Moving outrageously against political norms, I approached this white Afrikaner whom I knew to be not only a respected chemist, but a gentleman who engaged respectfully with all members of his staff. It was unheard of for a black man to approach a white man to join him in business, but it was this business relationship and increasing friendship that blurred the colour lines for me. Connie and I spend many a good weekend with Johan and his wife on their farm to this day.
Even so, I had a deep loathing for the injustice meted out by the apartheid laws. It was during this time that my brother, Pobane, died after being injured in a car accident. He was prevented from being admitted to the closest hospital because it was reserved for white patients only. Though Connie and I prayed fervently for his life, he died a week later in Kalafong hospital in Atteridgeville. I was utterly devastated to lose my big brother.
Together with a colleague called Joseph, Johan and I secured a loan of R30 000 on strict terms, and started our business, which we called Black Like Me, on Valentine’s Day in 1985. Johan came up with a quick-to-produce perm lotion and – as I’d anticipated – our product met an inexhaustible need in the black haircare market. What started out as a small working space, a 200-litre drum and a few decanting bottles, grew quickly into a factory of enormous proportions and a large staff contingent. Soon after we started, I secured coverage and marketing with SABC by sponsoring a hair and grooming series on TV. In addition to this, we maintained good relationships with our customers on the ground.
Early days in business: Herman (right) with colleagues Johan and Joseph at the Black Like Me factory | Photo © Herman Mashaba
The company grew and thrived beyond my wildest dreams, with Connie at my right hand keeping a formidable eye on the finances. We were able to buy our first home in 1986 and the following year we bought one for my mother too, which gave me the greatest joy of all.
In 1990, the government scrapped the Group Areas Act and Connie and I were able to go house-hunting without restriction. In spite of fierce opposition from our right-wing neighbours, we bought a house in Heatherdale, Pretoria, and I put up a high security fence to keep the black-haters at bay. Yet again, however, certain individuals would restore my faith in humanity and Minister Pik Botha, also a neighbour, organised a cocktail party in his home to welcome us to the area. We were embraced by some of our white neighbours, with whom we remain firm friends to this day.
We now live in Sandton, our two children attended top schools and I can be seen relaxing at the clubhouse after a game of golf at Killarney. I take my extended family and close friends with us on holidays abroad, and I have learnt to play tennis and the piano, which I love. One of my concerns is that my children will be ruined by excess, and I try to teach them values to prevent this. I particularly don’t like them to be fussy about food!
When I return to Ga Ramotse and see some of my old school friends, eyes glazed, seeming to have never left their bar stools, and when I remember Pobane, who never escaped the impact that poverty and alcohol had on his life from a young age, I stand in awe of the fact that I landed at the opposite end of the spectrum. Herman Mashaba was just like any other young township boy, no more intelligent and no more deserving, but – against all odds – my grandfather’s high expectations for me have been fulfilled. I’ll never measure my success in terms of what I own, nor by my worldly status, but by my relationships with others – my wife and children first and foremost – and by how I’m able to help others with my resources. Without these people to share my success, it would be worth nothing at all.
Our ability to achieve depends to some degree on the choices we make and our willingness to work hard and take advantage of opportunities, each of which require confidence. My own confidence stems from the relationship I formed, as a small boy in Ga Ramotse, with one far greater than any man; one for whom nothing is impossible; one for whom, the Bible says, there is ‘neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female’, and neither black nor white, too: the ‘Man Upstairs’, my father and creator. And that’s how I make sense of who I am today.
I hope my life experiences may, in some small way, help people to see a glimmer in the darkness, and realise that there is a way out of difficult circumstances.’