Herman Mashaba on his disillusionment with post-Mandela politics

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Where do great entrepreneurial stories begin? With a dream, of course, but they need a physical space for their genesis too. For the two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, it was the garage of a suburban home, where they tinkered with chipboards to produce the computer that would one day be named after an apple. For Richard Branson, it was the crypt of a local church, where he published and sold a newspaper called The Student. But for Herman Mashaba, founder of Black Like Me, business began in the boot of a car.

When his B.Admin studies were cut short by campus unrest, he took to the road as a travelling salesman, hawking fire alarms, insurance, linen, and crockery. Then he discovered, as he puts it, a way to “legally print money”: selling hair-perming products to black women.

With a loan of R30,000, and an Afrikaans chemist as a partner, he started his own company, Black Like Me, becoming a model of entrepreneurial drive, self-reliance, and empowerment. Still tirelessly involved in business and social activism, he sat down with Ruda Landman to chat about his journey from young radical to empire-builder, the resilience that made him rebuild his business after a devastating factory fire, his disillusionment with the post-Mandela political landscape, and his hopes for a better future for South Africa.

Hello, and a very warm welcome, once again to the Change Exchange. Our guest today, Herman Mashaba, and you will hear all about him if you don’t know it yet in the next half hour. Herman, thank you very much for your time, thank you for visiting.

Wonderful to be here.

I said to you before I am going to walk you through your life and we’re going to look at Change Moments, at moments of decision throughout. First one that struck me when I was looking at your history is that you went to the University of the North, and then it was closed down in 1980 because of the political unrest. And then you didn’t go back. Why?

What happened was the university closed down one morning at six o’clock surrounded by the army and we were given six hours to leave. And I think about a month or so when we  were called back, took a conscious decision not to go back. At the time, I was really very angry, and realised going back to an institution I was not going to really achieve much. And I thought focusing on trying to leave the country, going for military training would really be a quicker way of facilitating our liberation, and I was unfortunate that, at a contacts level, they never really came to the party to take me out of the country.

I don’t think it was unfortunate? I think we are so fortunate that you stayed.

I don’t know, I think the old man upstairs must have had another agenda for me and I ended up not actually leaving.

So that was not your decision. That was circumstance?

Definitely. I think if I had had my way, I would have left. That is why I decided not to go back. And then, at the time when I was studying, I thought I was actually excited about one day becoming a political scientist. I really fell in love with political science and my colleagues at university knew, I was actually starting to one day to become a professor in political science and really go over the world, lecturing, doing whatever. And I ended up being a capitalist! And I’ve been like that for now, many years, and the capitalist bug caught up with me and here is it, many years later.

You’ve had two jobs working for a salary, and then you gave that up in your early twenties to start selling stuff from the boot of your car? Why?

Well, what happened, is about six, seven months after university was opened, I realised I was really getting frustrated with just sitting at home, waiting for contacts to get me out. Fortunate enough, one of my brothers-in-law helped me to get employment at Spar Pretoria. Something I never thought would happen in my life, because I grew up avoiding contact with white people, because as I was growing up in my youth that white people are evil creatures, and my survival was totally dependent on avoiding contact with them. But all of a sudden I really had to face reality and I had to really change my plans and change my thinking, and I accepted the job with Spar Pretoria. And I worked for them for seven months and in the process worked for Motani Industries for 23 months. Basically I worked for a salary in my life for 30 months, and then one, with Motani, that’s when I realised I’m getting old. Now I’m 22, I’m not leaving the country any longer and I was not really prepared to be like my family, my mother, my father, the people around, and I needed to do something with my life. Going to school was no longer the viable option at the time and leaving the country, I had already given up on that. And I decided I must go into business, but before getting into business I  needed to stabilise my life – that’s when at the age of 22 I took a decision to stabilise my life, I had someone I was going out with and we got married and everything else, now, is history.

What would you say to your daughter if she’d say to you she wants to get married at 22?

Not a good idea, but I think for us, it was a good idea. I can assure you …

You see it as stabilising your life?

Actually, I think … Actually for me; it’s one of those decisions that I still treasure. Whoever gave me that wisdom to stabilise my life at the age of 22 before going into business … It’s really a decision that I will treasure for the rest of my life because I don’t really believe I would have achieved half of what I have achieved if my life was not stable.

We’ll come back to your wife, Connie, later. When you then started you decided to start your own company, Black Like Me, with a white chemist.

An Afrikaner for that matter. And you can imagine – we grew up thinking that whites were evil; Afrikaners were even worse. Because yes, to some extent Afrikaners used to be a very violent people to us. But when I started working, because what happened when I decided to go into business, bought a car and then two months later resigned and started being a commission sales rep, and then started interacting with white South Africans and mainly business owners and realised that this whole issue about racism is actually something that is promoted to a large extent by the political leadership. Ordinary people are just really great to human beings, and that’s what really started changing in my life when I started making money and really not really experiencing the kind of racism that I thought … I grew up …

You would.

And really started realising I’m dealing with human beings and I’m also treated as a human being, equally.

It’s exposure. I think that is what apartheid did, and it was so invidious, it kept us apart so we did not have any exposure to each other.

And then you can imagine, at the age of 24, I then decided, because for the last two years or so of selling as a commission sales rep, and then the process of selling products for a company here in Johannesburg called World of Hair. And there was this Afrikaner guy who  was the production manager and I needed to really go into the manufacturing of this business. Obviously I had no technical know-how and Johan was there. And one day I took a chance to say: “Johan, you can make this stuff, Joseph and I can sell them. Black women out there need to be permed, let’s go out there and perm them and make money.”

How did you know that? How did you find the market?

I sold for SuperKurl – World of Hair – SuperKurl the brand for 19 months and during that period I discovered this minefield of opportunity. The black women and men out there wanted to be permed and I decided I’m not going to perm them for Thompson.

Tell me about getting the R30,000 loan that made it possible?

Well, I think now all of a sudden you’ve got to start a business. Johan is there. Joseph, the three of us who are excited with this. Where do we get the funding? And fortunate enough there was a well-known businessman in Mabopane, called Walter Dube. The wife used to be my client, had a salon and managed to facilitate to meet with the husband. And we went with this plan. “Mr. Dube, we’ve discovered a machine to legally make many. Print money.” And Walter, as a businessman, quite easy to really understand. It took us two meetings with him and Walter bought into the stream, and he said, “I’ll give you the opportunity.”  And him and another businessman, called uncle Ned, came around with the R30,000. In 1984, 1985, R30,000 was a lot of money. Now you’ve got these two young black guys with the white Afrikaner from Boksburg … They took a chance on us and Walter managed to get us premises in Ga-Rankuwa Industrial Area, as BTC had this small factory unit. So Walter, with his contacts, managed to get us a 200 square meter factory in January of 1985.

Didn’t you run up against the apartheid legislation? In a mixed company and …

Well, fortunate enough the first thing that we had to do, because we could not operate in the so-called white South Africa … But then the homeland system was there and you find a way. I think, I always tell people as human beings God has given us a little bit of intellect to really be able to use, to navigate the environment. Because you have political leadership or animals coming out with legislation to oppose you, be against you. It obviously quite difficult for the majority of the people and sometimes, if you apply a little bit of intellect …

You can turn it to your advantage?

So ja, Walter was quite clever enough to organise us a 200 square meter factory in Mabopane, in the homeland, so it was easy to operate from there. And dealing now with the  official side, Johan, as much as he was our technical partner, then came quite handy to deal with official issues. Because going to offices as black people in the 1980s dealing with the National Party rule was a dangerous thing to do. Just mainly we went to government offices, so Johan dealt with those issues and made it quite easy for us. And Joseph and I would then concentrate on going out there and selling and making money.

But you went up against international companies. What made you believe that you could succeed?

I had no choice. You see, for me, I always believe in human beings, throwing them into the deep sea. People find a way to swim out. And I really operated my life around such beliefs. I’ll always believe in being thrown into the deep sea.

But why do you say you didn’t have a choice?

Well, what choice did I have? I wasn’t prepared to work for someone else. I needed my own personal freedom, which I yearned for all my life. And I thought, as I was growing up as a youth, that I was going to use education to really attain my total freedom, which, the apartheid system made it impossible. And then, all of a sudden, I then found the capitalist route to really be the route that I could exploit, and that’s exactly what I did. And I was not going to let anyone else stop me again.

Your factory burned down. It was burned down by someone in 1993. And the insurance wouldn’t pay out?

No, no, no. They did pay out, but the process took long and definitely I got less than half of the value of what I lost, but…

How does one stand up again? After something like that?

It was quite a difficult period of my life, but at the same time I think for me it’s really been such a great learning experience. I learned a very important lesson of never taking things for granted, because at the time things in my factory burned down, we just could not really cope with the demand. It was impossible. So I remember on the day the factory got burned down – the 17th of November 1993 – I was the last one to leave the factory after addressing staff. The following day we were starting a 24 hour shift, at six o’clock the following morning.  So I was the last one to leave after addressing people and made arrangements to meet them at six o’clock to start the shift. And got woken up at one, two in the morning that the factory was  on fire. So the fact that a group of people starting at six o’clock, when they came, there was no factory … So you can imagine the effect of this. It was not an easy period for anybody.

But you built it up again?

Ja, you know. People start work crying. And I realised I needed to do something, and do something really fast. I had no time on my side. And within two weeks managed to now buy property in Midrand, because at the time the apartheid structures were collapsing so we could buy property anywhere, as a South African, you could afford.

So it opened another door, really?

And as I said, I learned the lesson of not really taking things for granted and really always be proactive in life, be vigilant, and ja … So right now, that’s really what I do. And also really understand that your life can change overnight. Life doesn’t really change … doesn’t take generations. Life, from one minute to the next, can be a totally different world out there. And that’s really precisely what happened to me.

Many people find that the changes in life, find it deeply unsettling and deeply scary.

It’s really unfortunate. Very unfortunate for them, for the majority of the people. And not just in South Africa, all over the world. But it becomes an opportunity for entrepreneurs, for those that have got courage…

That think on their feet?

That have the courage. Because the type of decision that I have learned to really take all my life, always very difficult decisions that the majority of people are too scared to take. People are more concerned about failures. They don’t really think about the possibility in the event of success. And for me, I really always focus on success. Yes, I know failures will always be there, but at the end of the day the more positive you think, the more harder and more aggressive you think, the better chance of you actually succeeding. I’ve made lots of mistakes in my life, but you know what? It’s part of life. If I look back at my business career, I’ve made more positive decisions than the wrong ones. And I’m carrying myself and I hope I’m going to carry my life up to the end. To really be able to be courageous, to really take risks, which unfortunately the majority of the people are too scared. People really prefer to be in a comfortable situation where there is no changes. Life is about change and there’s some that you’re not going to stop.

And the other element is that means that you take responsibility. You’re not sitting there saying: “Well, the state” or “the system” or anything else will look after me.

That is the reason I’m really so disappointed with our new environment, with the new South Africa. Because we’re really creating this dependency that is really destroying the millions of our people, taking away their dignity. Because the government has created, or is busy creating this impression that they’re the only ones who can do anything positive for people. And what happens in the process? People actually wait for the government to do something for them, which is really quite unfortunate. I think – I thought 1994 – when Mandela was inaugurated as the president of the country, I thought freedom is here. And freedom is about personal responsibility, and I thought it was really the theme for this country, and unfortunately here we are, 21 years down the line, and our government strongly believes that they’re the only ones qualified to do anything.

So what is your message to the young people coming through now?

It’s actually quite difficult when people don’t really get the right type of education. When we sit with an economy that’s under-performing. We sit with one of the highest unemployment rates in the developing world, so it’s really difficult to inspire people. And really, at the same time, with a government that is so powerful, out there every day preaching to people that they’re the ones who can really do it. But I think the real small message I can send out to people, to be really conscious, that politicians or anyone else, people are there for themselves and not for you. So I think if we can really learn together for people to take personal responsibility for their lives. Especially when you’re living in a democratic environment – what democracy does? It allows all of us to be meaningful participants by voting every second year, every two and a half years in this country. Every South African at the age of 18 becomes a very powerful citizen of this country when you can go out and cast a vote. You can go out and cast a vote that can really make some real major impact for your own personal future and for the future of your children. So I think when people really don’t have to underestimate their power, when you live in a democratic environment.

You did try and become part of a big corporation. When was it? You sold 75% to Colgate?

1997. As a result of the fire. This fire – you can imagine – it really destabilised my corporation and I really needed a partner. And Colgate came to the party, and 1997 sold 75% of the business to Colgate, I kept the 25%.

Two years later you bought it back?

18 months into this marriage, Colgate and I really tried very hard to get my business to embrace this new environment, but for some reason the business refused to be part of a big organisation. And when I announced to Colgate that they are moving on, my great corporate advisor, a guy called Shane Ferguson – a brilliant guy, put together a proposal for me to buy the business back from Colgate, and when I presented to Colgate, Colgate graciously accepted, which is really another milestone in my life – August of 1999, took back my business. But now you can imagine – now, buying this business, really like literally start from scratch. But another exciting period of my life. And I think, also, that that marriage, that relationship with Colgate was also for me a God-given opportunity to really give me an opportunity to be exposed to corporate issues that I was never brought under. You can imagine coming from university, not even completing my second year of my studies – you work for 13 months as a junior person, and then you become a trader selling from the boot of your car. That’s all I knew. And then, all of a sudden, for the first time in my life, the two years with Colgate was a great learning experience, was really one of the best MBA programmes any human being can be afforded that opportunity. And I think, I feel I was really quite blessed for that opportunity to really be part of that environment, because I came out of what you would really call those ashes – really came out smarter and more determined to really actually make a difference in my life.

But you’re not a corporate creature? You need to be in charge of your own destiny.

Well I think I was born to be a free human being – independent. I mean, I look at my life now, almost turning 55, so you can imagine I’m totally dependent on this human being to survive. So I’m not really reliant on someone else. So that is why for me, it is important to all the time ensure that whatever I do I can sustain what I do. Because who can employ me, Ruda? Tell me, what do I know that I can really be employed by someone tomorrow?

Shame, you’re unemployable!

Absolutely. And I accept that. So my total survival is totally dependent on me. And I’ve embraced that life and I accepted it. So you can imagine I still have a balance of another 25, 30 years of my working life. And I know I can’t be employed, so the only way I can earn a living is to be employed by Herman.

And then about ten years ago, you handed over the reigns of Black Like Me to Connie, your wife, and what are you focusing on now?

What happened in our country in 2001 and 2002, with parliament started coming out with the legislation to govern this black economic empowerment – that’s when I realised with or without me, this is really becoming a reality. And at the same time, every day I get white colleagues knocking at my door, saying: “Herman, we’re looking for investors – black investors.” And fortunately my corporate advisor Shane one day brought a great opportunity for me two white guys from Krugersdorp, they were looking for a black investor in our business. So it was my first opportunity to really try this BEE opportunity and starting a very small business. And I invested in that business and discovered another minefield of opportunity that you don’t really make money by producing shampoos and conditioners, you can also make money by buying and selling businesses. At the same time I had the advantage of doing a corporate transaction with Colgate – selling of the business to them, buying it back from them, and I realised: “You know what, you actually make more money by buying and selling of businesses.”

There’s a bigger playing field.

Absolutely. And I decided to graduate into that situation and really started investing in one company, a second company … and at the same time really focused on BEE opportunities … I do investments. Any investment that comes my way. So that’s really what I do. I run a small investment company.

But 50% of your time is spent in social awareness?

Well, to become a social activist. Because I think that’s the reason why I devoted the balance of my life, was to really use my privileged position. I don’t take things for granted. My luck over the last over 30 years of my business career. Didn’t really just happen because I was a hard-working person. I’ve always believed there’s been a bigger plan somewhere and I think, fortunate and privileged South Africans like myself I believe owe it to our country to make a difference to the lives of other people. But I’m not the one going around giving people food parcels and t-shirts.

So what do you do?

I believe in ensuring that we get involved in projects where we teach our nation to fish. Not really about giving fishes out. I’m really about … really … any project that comes my way with an element of teaching our nation how to fish. Those are the projects that sit well with me, those are the projects that I’ll really do anything to support, and that’s what I do. So I really spend a lot of my time with such projects.

On a more personal note, how did you meet Connie and what attracted you?

Well, what happened was in 1978, just after writing my matric, one Friday afternoon we finished writing during the week and the Friday with my mates, we were tired after three months of focusing on books, and we said: “Guys, let’s go out and fish and look for girls.” And there was a high school, not far, in our neighbourhood and we decided to go out and look for girls. And in the process that’s when I first saw Connie, but I only started going out with her the following year. And we’ve really been big mates ever since, and …

What is it that attracted you, and that still holds you?

Personality … I don’t know. Beauty? Everything about …

Big mates. So you talk?

Yes, absolutely. And we’ve been fortunate. Married now over 30 years, and we’re still fortunate enough … Big friends and hope that we can maintain it.

I’m also married now for more than 40 years and it’s not fortunate. It is hard work. What makes your relationship work?

I don’t know?

Because you’ve been business partners as well? Which is quite difficult?

In 1985 when we started Black Like Me, I recruited her to come and join us because I realised we needed someone to look after the books and the factory when we’re gone. Because Joseph and I were on the road and Johan was a manufacturing person going out to Jo’burg to buy more materials two or three times a day. For the first two or three years we were buying on a COD basis because no one really trusted us, but we’re not prepared to allow people to determine our fate. So Johan really had to go to Jo’burg a lot. So what happens is we needed someone to look after the factory in our absence and fortunately enough Connie decided to take a chance at half the salary she was earning at the time to come and join us and really contributed to the success of our business, because we could relax while we were going out there selling, that we had someone quite reliable to look after our business.

You have two kids. They’re what? 20 and 18? What kind of a dad are you? Are you hands-on? Are you strict?

I don’t know. I think that question should really be asked to my children because I try to really just be a good dad to them – I’d really try like any normal dad would really be to the kids. Am I strict? Am I soft? Whatever answer will come out, my kids will argue differently. They’re the ones who can really make the determination.

Did it change you? To have children?

Ja, absolutely. I think as you’re aware, Connie and I have been married for a long time, really focused on business and also at the same time the Old Man upstairs said: “It’s not yet time for you to have children.” So we had kids much later in our marriage, but we’re so lucky in a sense by not having kids at an early stage gave us an opportunity to travel the world without really having to leave the kids behind. But obviously as soon as the kids came into our lives, you can imagine the difference. We really had to slow down, give them a chance to grow up under proper guidance and I think at the same time, which was really great, Connie decided to stop working for a while and focus on her studies and look after the children as well, which was for me was a great gesture from my side, to really look at life from that perspective, to take responsibility for these little ones coming up.

So many men in South Africa are absent as fathers. What can we do about that?

This is actually one of the biggest crimes, tragedies that this country is committing in terms of this high unemployment, which is really creating havoc in our communities, because how do we bring out kids without really complete family structures? We’re looking for trouble as a nation. And as I say – high unemployment, this dependency situation and so far. These are the issues that as a country – if we’re not going to really address and ensure that we can really bring family structures back in place, we’ll pay a heavy price. I cannot really see how we’re going to succeed as a country, as a nation, if we’re not going to do something about fixing our family structures.

Tell me about your home? What made you choose it? Did you look for space? Did you look for light and airy, for a beautiful tree in the garden?

Well I think I’ve lived in the same house for many years. We moved into Jo’burg – we’re from Pretoria – born and brought up in Hammanskraal. In fact, I look at my life – moved from the furthest places, Hammanskraal, Ga-Rankuwa, Soshanguve, Pretoria North and  eventually in 1998 came to Jo’burg. And lived in one house for many years, and I think the current house we’ve been in for the last seven, eight years. What do I love about that place? I think … I don’t know … It’s a difficult question for me to really answer, because a home is important, but it’s not really important. Fortunately it’s important for my family, for me I just really … roof over my head. Decent bedroom I can sleep in and a decent place I can watch television, but I love my neighbourhood, I love my house, I love the area, so I really quite like it that actually when we moved to Jo’burg, we thought we would really be here for years and then move back to Pretoria, because we used to be in love with Pretoria, but ever since moving to Jo’burg, at the moment there’s nowhere else to go, from a work perspective. Yes, there are other places in this country where we can live, depending on the type of work that you do, but for the work that I do – my offices are in Sandton, I live in Sandton – five minutes away from my home. I think for me it’s such an ideal environment if you really look at how Sandton CBD has grown over the last ten years or so, really been great, really seen this massive development happening in front of your eyes. Actually, looking back, my mother used to really work in Sandton, you know the Sandton City where we’d open, my mother used to work in Sandown. I used to come and visit her, I was 15, 16 at the time. So I see now this development really dating back to 35, 36 years ago and I live in this economic hub of South Africa, if not the African continent. And I really hope that as a country we can maintain this, because we’ve inherited a great infrastructure, but I think the challenge for us – the New South Africa – is to really take this to the next level.

Thank you very much. Thank you so much for coming to visit.

Thanks so much for the opportunity to talk to you.

Till next time, goodbye.

* This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes.