Self-made millionaire talks to Percy Mabandu about family, business, politics, his love of art and teaching people how to fish
There is a mild heat wave intent on defying a persistent winter’s chill in Joburg. It makes surviving the Sandton lunch-hour traffic a special kind of hell, but not impossible.
This I discover while on a mission to meet with Herman Mashaba, the businessman behind Black Like Me, the hair-products company that has been the principal sponsor of Black Like Us, an art exhibition that is now in its 10th yearly run.
He joins me in the boardroom of his office a few moments after his secretary, Charmaine, places a tea or coffee offering on the table. Fast-paced and almost short of breath, he is pressed for time.
“I’m driving to KwaZulu-Natal with friends who are arriving at my house any minute now,” he says. He follows this up with an apology and regrets not scheduling our chat earlier.
The pressure seeps into how he answers some of the questions. The 54-year-old mogul begins his statements with: “As I indicate in my book.” This refers to his recently published autobiography, Black Like You.
The book chronicles Mashaba’s rise from a snot-nose boy raised in Ga-Ramotse, a small village in Hammanskraal, north of Tshwane, to later selling hair products from the boot of his car and becoming a self-made millionaire.
It’s only halfway through our interview that he begins to ease up. Asked about his insistence on crediting the support of his wife for his success, Mashaba abandons his cerebral posture for a more emotive tone. The businessman sermonises about the importance of a stable family lifestyle as the key to personal success.
“I was born and brought up in a society where womanising was how boys got their respect. The more girlfriends you had, the more respect you got from other boys,” he says with a regretful tone in his voice.
“The truth is that you do that as a boy, but you grow up with that mentality and you can only cause chaos because womanisers destroy communities. It’s not as if women are happy with us screwing them, or men going around making babies everywhere. How can we have a normal society out of that? It’s impossible,” says an impassioned Mashaba.
He goes on to say one can’t expect to run a stable business or be a responsible member of a society with such a lifestyle. It’s an awkward turn of a conversation that has been unfolding with an air of corporate decorum.
Mashaba speaks with the clarity of a tried and tested businessman, and this comes through when he explains the motivation behind Black Like Me’s social responsibility ethos.
This year marks the end of the company’s involvement as the main sponsors of Black Like Us. The art exhibition was partly established to publicise works of gifted African artists identified by the Water Colour Society of SA.
Mashaba says the idea behind the sponsorship, which was done through Black Like Me’s enterprise development initiative, was to help the artists establish themselves. “I get involved in corporate social investments where we teach people how to fish.”
The initiative started with 14 artists 10 years ago when Maureen Dixon of the Water Colour Society invited Mashaba to help with funding. This year, the exhibition has 76 artists displaying their work.
He sees this as an important milestone, indicating that it is time to let artists go on to “fish on their own”.
Mashaba tells me that there is no longer space on the walls of his house because of the artefacts he has accumulated over the years. However, he doesn’t consider himself an art collector per se. He says: “Building our own art collection was not the driving force behind us getting involved. We got involved to help these guys run successful businesses.”
It is at this point in our chat that Mashaba makes a point to punt his political position.
“I’m a capitalist. I’ve always said I would love to see black people buying into this capitalist mode,” he explains. “That’s where our economic liberation is going to come from. Not from the government.”
During the 1980s, Mashaba famously sponsored the funerals of political activists. Though if we only look at his much-publicised spats with organs like labour federation Cosatu, this benevolent chapter becomes obscured.
Cedric Gina, president of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA, recently took a shot at Mashaba, telling journalists that: “Mashaba, who used to sell hair products from the boot of his car in black townships, has joined the capitalist class and he wants to prove a point that he can brutalise the working class better than capitalists who were born as capitalists.”
The fight was part of a recent episode in Mashaba’s tussles with the government and the governing alliance. Mashaba is chairperson of the Free Market Foundation, which joined forces with the DA and Corruption Watch to oppose the Licensing of Businesses Bill.
They were protesting that the bill, as it stands, will hamper economic growth because it criminalises legitimate business.
Mashaba argues that the problem with “our government” is that it behaves as if all of us are employees. He adds that our labour law makes it hard for small business to flourish.
The law, he says, doesn’t consider the majority of unemployed people, most of whom are youth. “I’ve got family members who at the age of 28, 29 have never worked because they left school with a matric that’s not worth anything.”
Though conceding that not all businesspeople mean well and that labour has a role to play in safeguarding the interests of workers, he says the labour law must consider those who are not workers.
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